Friday Book: Slavery: it's alive and kicking

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The Independent Culture



ALL NATIONS confer unequal benefits on those who dwell within their frontiers. But some are more even- tempered than others. In western democracies particularly, an entire ideology of human rights has taken root. Because it is an ideology, the temptation is to spread the word. Such quasi-scriptural instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - essentially a product of the European Enlightenment - provide activists at every level with what seem cast-iron charters for political intervention.

Inevitably, intervention is selective. Why has Britain, for example, chosen to intervene in Serbia but not in Burma? Not only is the human- rights record as black there, but as the former colonial power, Britain must be held largely responsible for the current horrors.

Such piecemeal application of our nostrums may suggest hypocrisy based on self-interest. Yet two at least of the fundamentals are even more awry. First, rights are not rights at all, in any inherent sense, but hopeful conventions. Nothing in nature or history validates the proposition that "all human beings are born free in dignity and rights".

Secondly, the promulgation of rights as an absolute in human conduct has not been matched by a general theory of intervention to enforce them. Rather, rights evangelists are so smitten that such a theory is deemed unnecessary.

Kevin Bales, in a landmark study of slavery as practised at the close of the 20th century, goes some way - but only some way - to acknowledging these limitations to the human-rights platform. On the one hand he is aware that, where it exists, slavery should be considered in the light of its cultural, social and economic antecedents. On the other, he is a committed abolitionist. Human rights are not an intellectual problem for him. His one caveat is that, pro tem, slavery can sometimes be preferable to immediate death by disease or starvation. But overall, he sees slavery as an evil to be eradicated.

The facts are certainly startling. Bales estimates that some 27 million individuals are enslaved worldwide. While traditional slave-ownership survives in such outposts as Mauritania, overwhelmingly the principal mechanism of modern slavery is debt- bondage. For just a few dollars, adults who are destitute sell themselves and their children to those who are not. In most cases, the transaction is given spurious legality by a "contract". But once bonded, the initial debt grows, manipulated by unscrupulous "slaveholders". Spineless judicial processes, corrupt police, a resort to violence and even the global market ensure that slaves remain enslaved.

Debt-bondage occurs in countries that provide little or no welfare, where unemployment is high, and where expanding populations have been driven off the land. Bales concentrates on a handful of case studies: a Thai brothel-worker; a charcoal-burner in the Brazilian rainforest; a brickmaker in Pakistan; an agricultural worker in India. Each typifies the plight of thousands more. And where he can, Bales implicates custom and religious belief in the perceived tragedy of enslavement. Thus "Siri", his Thai prostitute, is stymied not just by the willingness of her parents to sell her in the first place, but also by conventional attitudes of male superiority, and by Buddhism's well-canvassed "fatalism".

But Bales perhaps misses the main point. Eastern societies tend to be vertical in a manner that no longer pertains in the west. In Thailand, up-down relationships between "master" and "servant" have for centuries been the dominant and often mutually convenient matrix. In practice, Thai Buddhism not only preaches personal virtue but is strongly focused on principles of mutuality. Siri's plight, with its added risk of HIV infection, is as much a contortion of conservative Thai values as it is an offence against outsiders' principles.

Where Bales scores heavily is in deriving a typology of the "new slavery" as against the old. In the old - say in the pre-Civil War American South - slave-ownership was legally sanctioned, thus scotching any view that slavery and the rule of law are antithetical. It was costly, yielded low profits, and implied both ethnic distinction and a long-term relationship in which slaves could expect to be "maintained" long after their "useful" life had finished. In sharp contrast, today's slaves are likely to be bonded to someone of their own race, are cheaply secured, remain outside any legal pale, and are retained only for so long as they return high profits. Not only is slavery alive and kicking at the end of the 20th century, Bales persuades us, but slaves now get a far worse deal than their predecessors.

As someone born and bred in the west, I am bound to share Bales's moral indignation; but as a historian, I know that change is most likely to come about if the cultures and societies involved themselves evolve in a specific direction. International media pressure and aid work can assist this process, but equally it can drive slavery underground - making it so much the more oppressive.