Do 21 Million ‘Modern” Slaves Commemorate the Day Their Ancestors Said “No”?


Human Wrongs Watch

Marking the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called for reflection on the transformation brought about by the slave trade to the world, and urged countries to protect their citizens against racism and forced labour.

Shackles used to bind slaves. UN Photo/Mark Garten

“The long series of uprisings by slaves in their quest for freedom are sources for reflection and action for protecting human rights and combating modern forms of servitude,” said UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, in a message to mark the Day, which is observed annually on 23 August.

“The history of the slave trade and its abolition has shaped the world in which we live,” she added. “We are all heirs to this past, which has transformed the world’s map, its laws, cultures and social relations, even giving rise to new food habits – especially through the sugar trade.”

The International Day commemorates the uprising which took place on 22-23 August 1791, when slaves in Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti), launched an insurrection which ultimately led to the Haitian revolution and helped to promote the cause of human rights.

“Heroes” of the History of Slavery?

“Through their struggles and their desire for dignity and freedom, slaves have contributed to the universality of human rights. People must be taught the names of the heroes of the history of slavery – they are all of humanity’s heroes,” Bokova said.

UNESCO has been playing a leading role in fostering understanding and recognition of the slave trade. Since the establishment of the Slave Route project in 1994, the agency has worked to break the silence on the slave trade and slavery.

The project consists of creating opportunities to promote mutual understanding and international reconciliation and stability through consultation and discussion. It also raises awareness, promotes debate and helps build consensus on approaches to be taken on addressing the issue of the slave trade and slavery, The UN reports.

In her message, Bokova also stressed that slaves transcended oppression and gave the world a rich cultural heritage.

Dance, Music….

“Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean and Asia now share forms of dance, music, living arts and artistic expression that are a direct legacy of that history,” she said. “Through its cultural and educational programmes, UNESCO seeks to safeguard and promote this heritage as a force for rapprochement and dialogue among peoples.”

This year, the Day will also be part of the preparations for the Decade for People of African Descent, which will begin next year, and seeks to help boost political commitments in favour of people of African descent.

21 Million Victims of Forced Labour

On 1 June 2012, the UN reported that almost 21 million people worldwide are trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived and which they cannot leave.

Photo: IRIN/M. Deghati.

Released by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour found that the Asia-Pacific region accounts for the largest number of the 20.9 million forced labourers in the world – 11.7 million, or 56 per cent, of the global total.

This is followed by Africa at 3.7 million and Latin America with 1.8 million victims.

According to ILO, forced labour takes different forms, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery, with the victims normally the most vulnerable – women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage, and sweatshop or farm workers kept there by clearly illegal tactics and paid little or nothing.

Private Business Exploits 19 Million ‘Modern’ Slaves

In the new estimates, 18.7 million people – 90 per cent of the total – are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises.

Of these, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 14.2 million are victims of forced labour exploitation in economic activities, such as agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing.

Another 2.2 million people are in state-imposed forms of forced labour, such as in prisons under conditions which violate ILO standards, or in work imposed by the state military or by rebel armed forces.

One in Four Below 18 Years of Age

The ILO also found that 5.5 million forced labourers, or 26 per cent, are below 18 years of age.

“We have come a long way over the last seven years since we first put an estimate on how many people were forced into labour or services across the world,” the head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, Beate Andrees, said in a news release.

“We have made good progress in ensuring most countries now have legislation in place which criminalises forced labour, human trafficking and slavery-like practices.”

She noted that it is now necessary to focus on better identification and prosecution of forced labour and related offences such as human trafficking.

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