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There Are More Slaves Today Than at Any Time in Human History

Ben Skinner spent four years inside the world of modern-day slavery; an industry that produces huge profits and countless wasted lives.

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It was a very effective sales pitch. They managed to raise over $3 million dollars by my calculations over the course of the 1990s.

In theory, they were giving money to "retrievers" who would go into northern Sudan, and through whatever means necessary, secure the slaves' freedom and bring them back down into the south.

In the context of the Sudanese civil war, slavery is used as a weapon of war by the north. Northern militias raid southern villages, and in many cases, kill the men and take the women and children as slaves and as a weapon of genocide. That much is not questioned. There is no question that these slave raids were going on.

I found that redemption on the ground was enormously problematic. There was scant oversight. They were literally giving duffel bags full of cash to factions within the rebels that were at that point resisting an ongoing peace process.

What they risked doing, whether through recklessness or through intent, was to become essentially angels of destruction at a time when a negotiated peace was just beginning to take hold. Thankfully, at this point they've scaled back the redemptions.

TM: So they were collecting money in the States to free slaves, and then funding a rebel movement in a war, and ...

BS: Potentially prolonging the war.

Thankfully, in the end, the death of rebel leader John Gurang meant that a different faction came to be more powerful. From my perspective, however, what was going on there was largely fraudulent.

I went back and asked the rebel officials, "What do you do with this money?" and they said, "We use it for the benefit of the people." Which begs the question, "But I thought this was being used to buy back slaves. I don't get it."

And they said, "Well you know, there's clothes, uniforms ..." They didn't actually say arms, but they said all sorts of things that they needed hard currency for, and this was their way of getting the cash.

I don't blame the rebels. If I were in a similar situation, I'd probably do the same thing. The most important point is this: By the merest estimates there are still some 12,000 slaves held in brutal bondage in the north of Sudan, and the government has not arrested or prosecuted one slave raider, one slave trader, one slave master. And as long as that continues to be the situation, the government of Sudan is in gross violation of international law.

TM: How does the distinction between sexual slavery and other sorts of labor show up, and how does it matter?

BS: When we're defining slavery, fundamentally at its core it's the same in each and every circumstance. We're talking about people forced to work held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence. If we're talking about forced commercial sexual slavery, forced prostitution, there's an added element of humiliation or shame, because we're talking about rape.

In many parts of the world and in many traditional societies, if a woman is raped it's her fault. If a woman is liberated and tries to go back to the village she comes from, she will never again lead a normal life.

I think it's safe to say even in the United States, which we assume is a much more welcoming, tolerant society, women who've been in prostitution, regardless if it's forced or not, have a difficult time leading a normal life afterward.

There is a school of thought that sexual slavery is somehow worse than other forms of slavery. I actually don't buy that. I think that all slavery is monstrous, and no one slave's emancipation should wait for that of another. At the same time, if some people are moved to fight sexual slavery and sexual trafficking at the exclusion of other forms of slavery, God bless them, as long as they're fighting slavery at the end of the day.