Mon | Feb 24, 2020

Martin Henry | Slavery, alive and well around the world

Published:Sunday | December 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Stop Human Trafficking
Protestors march against modern-day slavery

The breaking news of slave auctions in Libya really should not be shocking us so much. Slavery, bondage and servitude are alive and well around the world, and in some places more surprising than in the failed state of what was Libya.

The territory of the former Libyan state is fertile ground for a resurgence of slavery. Central authority broke down with the overthrow of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in 2011 and a fragmentation of the country into tribal, ethnic and geographic fiefdoms. Only a few hundred miles of Mediterranean Sea water separate the territory from the boot of Italy, and desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are crossing the Sahara and using Libya as a staging point for getting into Europe.

With the tightening of the flow into Europe, hundreds of thousands of people are trapped in camps in Libya ripe for exploitation. It is estimated that between 400,000 and one million migrants may now be trapped in Libya. Smugglers who are now unable to get the people into Europe, people who have often sold all their possessions in order to pay their way, are holding many of them against their will and seeking to recover their money by selling off their captives.




Today is International Human Rights Day, and also Michael Manley's birthday, great champion of human rights, equality and dignity, both abroad and at home. It was a 'heart-full', prideful moment to hear the calm, steady voice of our fine minister of foreign affairs, Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, from the other side of the Parliament from the one which Michael Manley led in his time condemning the trading of slaves in Libya and declaring Jamaica's stance against it and pledging to take action with the United Nations against the practice.

"This human indignity is unreservedly and entirely condemned by the Government and we commit to working with the international community to curtail this despicable trade in human beings, wherever it occurs across the world," she told the Senate and the nation.

She was speaking on Friday, December 1, a day before the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. Such a day remains as necessary as it was in the 19th century.

Newly independent Jamaica, with then Minister of External Affairs Hugh Shearer proposing, led the UN to declare 1968 The International Year of Human Rights. And even before Independence, we were out front condemning apartheid in South Africa and boycotting trade with that country.

Article 4 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." This has proven to be much easier said than done.

The three articles before that say:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Even as Jamaica condemned the Libya slave auctions, the country, the minister said, should also direct its outrage and offence on issues of human bondage and human trafficking taking place within our own borders.

"Modern-day slavery," she said, "is not limited to the inhumane treatment of African migrants on the continent. It includes the young girl in rural Jamaica answering an advertisement in the paper promising on-the-job training in customer service who finds herself forced into prostitution or threat of death if she seeks to run away. It also includes the young boy who lost his parents and is taken in by a member of a neighbouring community but who is made to work seven days per week, not attend school, not play, and he is given little food or drink, but an abundance of beatings."

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

There are many who expect our Government to take the same bold and courageous stand against the situation in the Dominican Republic where citizens of Haitian descent are being stripped of their right of nationality and are left stateless, instead of hiding behind CARICOM diplomatic platitudes. The president of the Dom Rep, Danilo Medina Sanchez, was recently feted here and awarded the country's second-highest honour without a word of remonstrance.

Lord Wilberforce, a modern descendant of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce, and a Lord of Appeal and at the time president of the London-based Anti-Slavery Society, writing the foreword to a study of 20th-century slavery, made the shocking observation that "it is hard for us to appreciate that in spite of the great efforts made by the emancipators and their successors, in spite of the revolution in public opinion as regards all form of slavery, in spite of the plethora of international agreements for the suppression of slavery (some 300 of them, the problems of slavery in the twentieth century is as great, indeed greater than it was in the 1830s" [In M.L. Bush (Editor), Serfdom & Slavery, Studies in Legal Bondage].




Anti-Slavery International (1990), the successor of the 1823-founded Anti-Slavery Society, concurs. "Slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th century," the society reminds us. "Slavery continues today and harms people in every country in the world.Women forced into prostitution. People forced to work in agriculture, domestic work and factories. Children in sweatshops producing goods sold globally. Entire families forced to work for nothing to pay off generational debts. Girls forced to marry older men."

Citing ILO estimates, ASI says: "There are an estimated 40.3 million people in modern slavery around the world, including:

• 10 million children

• 24.9 million people in forced labour

• 15.4 million people in forced marriage

• 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation

Someone is in slavery, ASI explains, if they are:forced to work - through coercion, or mental or physical threat; owned or controlled by an 'employer', through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse; dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as 'property'; physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.

While the current focus is on loose Libya, the Guardian newspaper in Britain posted an October 17 article in its Modern-day Slavery in Focus series on the scale of the problem in the United Kingdom. "The number of people living in slavery in the UK is likely to be considerably higher than the current estimate of 13,000, according to the independent anti-trafficking commissioner, Kevin Hyland, who has claimed that the 'true number is in the tens of thousands,'" the story said.

Speaking to the Guardian, Hyland said that a better understanding of the real scale of slavery in the UK must become an "absolute priority" for government, if there was a chance of reaching as many potential victims as possible.

"The 13,000 figure is based on old intelligence and we've come a long way since then in terms of our understanding of the real scale of the problem we're facing," he said. "We know now that slavery here in the UK is far more prevalent than we have ever realised, and building a better response needs to be an absolute priority both domestically and globally."

The UK recorded 2,255 modern slavery offences across England and Wales in 2016, a 159 per cent increase from the previous year. The country's Parliament has passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015 designed to tackle slavery in the UK and consolidating previous offences relating to trafficking and slavery. We in Jamaica have passed human-trafficking legislation and have organised the police force to fight it.




There are, in absolute numbers, more slaves and persons in various forms of bondage in the world in 2017 than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th century. While estimates vary, upwards of 40 million people worldwide may be enslaved in the form of human trafficking, forced labour, bondage from indebtedness, forced or servile marriage or commercial sexual exploitation.

The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8 million people are subject to some form of slavery. The countries with the highest estimated prevalence of modern slavery by the proportion of their population are: North Korea, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, India, and Qatar. The countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery are: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. Several of these countries provide the low-cost labour that produces consumer goods for markets in Western Europe, Japan, North America and Australia.

Slavery is alive and well in the modern world. Libya is merely the current poster case.The stance of the Jamaican Government against servitude abroad and at home is to be commended as part of our long and proud tradition.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and