Africana Plus

No60 April 2004.2

International year 2004

Is slavery finally outlawed ?

Or is it still to be abolished ?


The United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) has officially launched, on January 10th, 2004, the international year commemorating the fight against slavery and its abolition.  The ceremony was held on the Ghana Coast, in one of the most active harbours in the Slave Trade in the 19th century.  The idea was to underline that tragedy, since it coincides with the centenary of the proclamation of the first Black State, Haiti.  But, in fact, slavery still needs to be abolished.  It is still alive on all continents.  Niger, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Mali, etc, are still involved in it, as well as Brazil. 


            During the next ten months, the institutions of the ONU member states, the United Nations agencies, and the official organisations, are urged to launch initiatives that will spread the knowledge of the slavery phenomenon, and deepen the consciousness of the citizens of the whole world of that tragic experience too often forgotten.  Slavery is a practice that has marked human communities in many countries and at many epochs.  In Africa, slave trade was introduced by the Arabs, and partly encouraged by African rivalries.  In more than a thousand years, from the 17th century on, some 17 million Africans were captured and sold by Moslem slave traders.  But in the public mentality, the slave trade means mostly the trans-Atlantic traffic, which, from the beginning of the 16th century on, has meant the forced deportation of millions of blacks to North and South America.


     In 1888, at the apogee of this drama, Cardinal Lavigerie, the founder of the Missionaries of Africa, was asked by Pope Leon 13th to launch in Europe a vast campaign to end this "shameful traffic."  The Cardinal pointed out the horror or of that drama in these words: "During the last quarter century, more than twenty million humans have been victims of slavery and have had horrible deaths … I have realized, through the testimony of eye-witnesses that two million humans disappear this way each year, … that is to say that five thousand Blacks are massacred, kidnapped and sold each year, when you count the victims from all Africa.  It is the annihilation of a whole continent!" 


            Between the 16th and the 17th centuries, it is estimated that fifteen million Africans from Gabon, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria have been ensnared like wild animals and shipped to the Caribbean Islands, and from there to South and Central America.  A large proportion of them died during the trip, while the survivors were destined to a life of degradation and suffering.  The ONU initiative for the year 2004 is meant to remind us of that human tragedy, by pointing out that, unfortunately slavery has not completely disappeared yet.


            "Antislavery International," an organisation that is not Government sponsored, is watching over that phenomenon and fighting all forms of oppression, and it warns us that, in many cases, slave trading is still being done to this day under new forms.  It survives by the subjection of ethnic minorities by the stronger groups, as is done in the Sudan.  During the last ten years, the Evangelical Association, "Christian Solidarity International,"  (CSI,) which monitors that phenomenon and fights all forms of slavery, has often warned that this practice is surviving and finding new ways.  It does so by subjection and deprivation of civil rights for ethnic minorities.  It does so in the Sudan.  Often, during the last 10 years, CSI has spent thousands of dollars to liberate Christian Sudanese animists from the North whom the Moslem militia had kidnapped on behalf of the Central State.  But as soon as these were liberated, the militia caught them again, as a way of making money.  Worse still, in the Khartoum markets they were selling children for a few dollars, and these were sent to Thailand where they were trained as sex objects.  Recently, Thailand government mentioned that no less than 40,000 youngsters of 15 years of age, or less, were prisoners of that kind.  Or, if not prostituted in Thailand, those children become children soldiers in Brazil.  The increase in local fighting there during the last 10 years gave rise to a new form of slavery.  According to the "Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers," there are now some 300,000 of those children-soldiers!


            The number of slaves has never been as high as it is now.  If we believe the international bureau of labour (BIT), There exist no less than one hundred and twenty million children condemned to forced labour 7 days a week.  When we add those exploited in other ways, the total is close to 300 million.  After a full year studying this subject, the UNO is finally devoting a full year to warn us about this, the worst plague of all.


            Diamonds …  In Sierra Leone, thousands of people dream of finding some, so that they could live better.  Bent down along the 800 miles of "open mines" they only receive food and a few essentials and sometimes tools.  When they find a diamond, they must pay the "boss" first, but are not told the worth of the find.  Those diamond seekers lodge on their working strip.  And they are carefully kept in debt by the open mines' owner, who supplies all their needs at exorbitant prices.


            In Mali, South Africa, Niger and Haiti, children are often used as servants.  It is often one way of enticing them into cities and to an education.  But it is also a way to forced labour.  From outside the city, the difference between the two is none too visible.  In its last report on child labour, the International Labour Bureau states, "In West and Central Africa, lodging children in town families is the traditional way of giving them a start in life.  But today, it has become the means of exploiting them.  "Working like a slave" is a well-known phrase, but the word "slave" has a well-defined meaning that is not limited to poor working conditions.  The International Convention of 1926 on the abolishment of slavery defines it thus, "The state or condition of people over whom others claim ownership, or other rights.  In that type of relationship, the owner has rights not only on their work but also on the person of the slave and also sometimes on their children, as if they were property."  In the past, slavery was usually the result of war or of colonisation; today it is often the result of having incurred debts that one cannot pay back.


            Being a slave means confiscation of personal identity papers, being held in one's working place, with no outside contacts especially with one's family, and in working conditions that are contrary to human dignity.  Added to that, there is sometimes the cultural isolation resulting from the use of a foreign tongue and physical violence to the slave.  There are traces of that even in Quebec.  According to Louise Dionne, the Director of the association for family help, add to that the confiscation of identity papers, blackmail on threat of expulsion, and isolation by forbidding the use of the telephone.  Certain categories of people are particularly vulnerable, especially people in domestic and agricultural service, workers in textiles and public restaurants, where migrants with little schooling and small salaries are mostly found.  


            The many shapes of modern slavery also target home service, business world and sexual abuse.  Modern slavery is mostly led by professional strangers looking for low priced or free service.  The new "boat people" are led by criminals who steal their money from them and pack them in ships bound for Europe.  That new type of slavery will probably increase in Europe, according to Max Henri Blois.


            And then, there is the domestic slavery.  According to a report to the European Council, "more than four million women are sold each year."  Their passport is taken away when they arrive, thus making it impossible for them to return home.  Their work, lasting fifteen or twenty hours a day, is hardly ever paid to them.  And very often they are submitted to physical or psychological violence.  Very few of those victims dare report it to authorities for fear of the consequences.  Often these women know they are heading for prostitution, but they do not know how dreadful it will be.  Another type of  slavery is that seen in unlawful factories run by conscienceless people who want a free labour force.


            The Commemorative Year that was opened by UNESCO in Ghana on January 10th was motivated by the conviction that "to make the memory permanent, to prevent its being forgotten, to bring back a memory long hidden or unknown and to give it back the place that should be its own in the memory of men, this is a fitting answer to our duty to remember," according to the words of Koichiro Matsumura, the Director of UNESCO.   He wanted thus to fight against all contemporary forms of slavery.  But this is most difficult on account of a strong opposition.


            A celebration of "purifying our memory" already took place on October 5th, 2003, on the Gore island that was the starting point of slaves towards America.  It was part of the 13th Plenary Assembly of the symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SCEAM), a celebration that blasted modern abuses as well.  Its President, Mgr Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, gave a speech then, during a solemn Eucharist.  He condemned modern slaveries, talking primarily to African Leaders, "We condemn it and we invite you, the Leaders of this country, to condemn all the  forms of slavery that constitute the deportation of our daughters for prostitution, sexual  tourism, the selling of children, the forced enrolment of our children in fratricidal wars, and the wasting of the treasures of our underground.  We condemn as well, and we invite you to condemn, all forms of discrimination based on races, tribes and regions, which dangerously threaten our cities."


            Already, in February 1992, Pope John-Paul II, came in person to Goré, to ask pardon for the crime against humanity that was the forced emigration of African peoples towards America, their enslavement, the unsanitary conditions on the ships carrying them there."  On his way back from Dakar, the Pope stopped on Goré Island and stayed at the "slaves' house," where he said, "During a long period of African history, black men, women and children were forcibly brought to this small island, separated from family and tribe, and sold like merchandise.  It can be said that this island remains in people's minds and hearts as the black diaspora.  These men, women and children were the victims of a shameful enterprise that involved even baptized people who betrayed their faith.  How can we forget that immense suffering imposed against all elementary human rights?  It is fitting that we now confess in humility and truth that horrendous sin against humanity, and against our God."


            According to Francis Kpatinde, of the magazine L'Intelligent, (31 December 2003,) "If some few western countries and the Vatican have apologized to black people for the slave trade, no Arab nation, so far, has shown, to this day, the same disposition towards the millions of offspring of those slaves in Yemen, Arabia, India, China or elsewhere.  This is a pity, as the majority of Arabs, today, are mostly Africans.


            Sylvia Brunel, the ex-president of ONG (action against hunger,) asks, in a special issue of "L'Histoire," (October 2003,) "Does the West have to apologize for the trade in ebony?"  No, says she with many arguments, that trade was not the monopoly of the West, the demographic and economical impact has been exaggerated.  If financial retribution is considered, to whom should it be paid?  Many Africans have been enriched by that trade.  The opinion of the magazine is that it is less important to confess past sins than to avoid present abuses.  Maybe, but doing the one does not reduce the need for the other.



Michel Fortin, W.F.

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