Tackling Modern Slavery Best Way Of Paying Reparations For Historical Slavery

The blame-and-compensate culture is no way to heal old wounds.

My own exposure to a form of slavery was as a privileged child in India, waited upon hand-and-foot by domestic servants. Although my parents taught me to treat them with kindness, there was no getting away from underlying racism. My carers were considered inferior as coming from an impoverished indigenous tribal community forced into servitude.

I understood this better later when, as Head of the United Nations in Sudan, I struggled against a complex network of buyers and sellers of slaves. This was a lucrative accompaniment to the civil war between the Arab North and Black South.

It is an unsavoury aspect of our shared humanity that slavery was at the core of all cultures. Evidence for slavery goes back 11,000 years to Neolithic times and the practice was already institutionalised with the first civilisation in 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia.

Most ancient Athenian families had slaves and the expanding Roman Empire enslaved whole populations. The 8th century Chinese enslaved the Thais while the Khmer Empire’s iconic Angkor Wat was built by slaves. The 13th century Mongolian invasions established lucrative slave markets. In early Islamic societies, an estimated third of the population had slave status. In the Americas, the Mayas and Aztecs were active slavers.

But the lucrative trade relied on partnership with domestic slavers victimising their own kind. The intra-African slave trade thrived over centuries with the great slave trading kingdoms of Ashanti and Dahomey.

However, there were important differences. European slavery stripped all rights from victims, classifying them as ‘chattels’ with perpetual enslavement extending to their children. African slavery was akin to indentured labour who could be freed and their children entitled to be born free.

The British colonial empire and especially its great cities of London, Manchester, Liverpool, and Bristol prospered from trans-Atlantic slavery, as also the French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish empires. Slave labour created the original wealth of the United States.

Exposing the past candidly is a start as The Guardian does by investigating the slavery links of its 19th-century founders. Similarly, King Charles III has sanctioned research into the British monarchy’s historic involvement. Monuments and museums of slavery abound and educational curricula include slavery. Ignorance about our insalubrious past cannot excuse repetition.

That this is worthwhile is shown by the inspiring struggle to abolish slavery itself. The 1794 revolt by the slaves of French Haiti started a trend with the British parliament prohibiting the slave trade in 1807, and the United States and others following suit.

Does present-day contrition atone for past misdeeds? The Netherlands Prime Minister’s December 2022 apology for his country’s extensive role in slavery evoked mixed reactions. Former colonies felt patronised while a divided Dutch society pointed towards significant racism persisting at home.

The Presidents of Benin and Ghana and traditional chiefs from Cameroon have regretted Africa’s own role, including apologising to Afro-American tourists visiting to discover their roots. The US Congress, European Parliament and the Mayor of London have also apologised. Others are consulting lawyers on whether apologies expose them to claims for compensation as opposed to weaker expressions of regret which are safer but cause umbrage because they are not felt to be full-hearted.

Apart from the difficulty of calculating the monetary value of compensation, what entitles them to personally benefit because of harms to their forebears? By that token, should I be compensated for the British colonisation of my Indian ancestors? How do I repay the debt to my family’s forced labour domestics?

There is a curious parallel here between the 250-year-old forced displacement of African slaves to the New World and the present-day migration of desperate Africans to Old Europe.

However, linking past harm with future indemnification take us into complex territory.

Korea is still wrangling with Japan for the wartime sexual slavery of its women. The broader slavery restitution debate has parallels in current demands to historic polluters for loss-and-damage payments for vulnerable countries that emitted least carbon but suffer most from catastrophic disasters.

Admittedly, this is hard, but not helped by a growing blame-and-compensate culture for everything wrong in our world. That stirs-up even more bitterness at a time of deep geo-political and socio-economic divisions. Of course, we should spend more on development and humanitarian aid, climate adaptation and mitigation, public health, and so on. Because this is unconditionally right for the future of our shared humanity, and not as gestures to appease the past.

Back to slavery. Its modern version is hidden but growing at an alarming rate in all continents. It tricks, traps, or traffics 50 million people annually. Commonest is debt bondage including via forced labour migration affecting 28 million people (including 3.3 million children) across many supply chains. A further 22 million are sexually exploited through forced marriages and prostitution, including underage youngsters. Domestic servitude, child soldiering, and trafficking for organs are other dimensions of a sordid trade that generates a massive US$150 billion annual profit.

It is an aspect of human nature that we are more comfortable talking about safely past issues than gripping current challenges. What better way to settle slavery’s past account than to tackle the flourishing modern slave trade more forcefully?

– Kapila, is the former UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan. He is Professor Emeritus of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester.

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