The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery was established in 1986 in commemoration of the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others approved by the United Nations General Assembly on 2nd December, 1949.
Slavery is implicitly part of our world’s history. However much we might disdain and attempt to distance ourselves from it, it impacts every continent. The association of men, women or children as property has been a reality for thousands of years, and still continues to this day, although to a lesser extent.
Slavery permeated the once great empires of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, even in the great city state of Athens, the Roman Empire, to the Portuguese Empire, the Spanish Empire, and maybe most recognisably, the British Empire and the United States of America. Slavery has fed empires throughout history, sustaining and increasing their wealth and global position. The proliferation of trading men, women and children drove them onwards, enabling conquest and expansion.
Slaves have been used primarily for economic purposes throughout history and free labour for the highest bidder. But in the Roman Empire in particular, slaves were used for entertainment in gladiatorial games held in such esteemed architecture as the Colosseum. But this was largely an anomaly, with slaves being used for free labour rather than other reasons.
The institutionalisation and capitalisation of the slave trade signalled a dramatic turning point. Whereas slaves may have been captured in wars between local tribes in the period before the Roman Empire, afterwards, the Portuguese, Spanish and British Empires, the process of slavery became industrialised, and its scale magnified exponentially. It became a truly global, cross-continental industry that enabled the construction of vast empires. The transportation of slaves from Africa to the various tropical plantations of the Americas were extremely influential on these landscapes, changing them forever.
Indeed, empires were built on the backs of slaves, propelling their industry, trade and eventual wealth and prestige. Through forced labour, vast plantations arose that supplied Europe and the world with sought after commodities such as coffee, cotton and sugar. These slave plantations functioned to appease the commercial desires of empire, and made a very few men, unbelievably rich. Power and wealth superseded the rights of man and human dignity.
The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 signalled the abolishment of slavery across the British Empire through a gradual process, with slave owners compensated for their loss of “property???. This Act was of huge significance. Victory for the abolitionists was vital in influencing other such movements, spreading their ideas throughout Europe. But state-sponsored slavery persisted.
But to simply condemn this period without understanding it is misguided; looking down on the past is not to understand it. This perspective does not hold credence as slavery is remarkably still occurring across the world.
After empires, countries, the League of Nations and the United Nations abolished slavery, the nature of slavery changed dramatically. If slavery is now not perpetuated and propagated by nations, then how does it still exist? What causes slavery and enables its existence? These factors have certainly changed over time, but they are still vitally important. Yet even with these different circumstances, the number of people enslaved worldwide, as of 2015, is estimated to be between 21-36 million, according to Free the Slaves. The International Labour Organisation states that of these people, 21 million are victims of forced labour and 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation. The Global Slavery Index in 2014 stated that an estimated 35.8 million men, women and children around the world are trapped in modern slavery today. This is still an incredible figure and represents the severity of the issue. How slavery can be so prevalent in the 21st century is almost unbelievable, it show that no matter how much we disdain the idea of our past being intertwined with slavery, we as a people are still bound by this in the present and will be in the future.
Modern slavery has grown and developed out of its illegality to become more convert and secretive. To tackle this issue, governments and NGOs need to challenge the source of slavery. By alleviating poverty and allowing people to lift themselves out of poverty, we will eliminate the ability of human traffickers to prey on these vulnerable people and communities. Livelihood programmes can advocate self-sufficiency and empower communities to embolden their resistance. The UN Day for the Abolition of Slavery is vital as it highlights the persistence of this practice and issue. What is now needed is action, rather than rhetoric. The Governments and the United Nations must take appropriate action against the trafficking networks at a governmental and legal level. Alongside these bodies, International and local NGOs need to work to alleviate poverty and to examine, and then attempt to rectify, the causes of modern slavery.
Although we may seek to distance ourselves from slavery in our history, with shame and regret, we must embrace and accept that slavery was, and still is, part of our existence. We must first come to terms with our past, to change our present and our future.
Slavery has undoubtedly forged our history, now let us confine this practice to the past.