|No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.|
Despite the work that has been done on a multilateral and unilateral basis to abolish slavery, this ancient practice continues to thrive. The present situation was addressed by Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery in the following terms:
[S]lavery is not dead. It exists and is even on the rise in some parts of the world .... New forms of slavery; sexual exploitation of children, child labor, bonded labor, serfdom, migrant labor, domestic labor, forced labor, slavery for religious purposes and trafficking pose a great challenge to us all.
Contemporary Instances of Slavery and Trafficking in Women and Children
The following discussion considers a modern instance of the slave trade in Sudan. It illustrates the problems that confront international organizations and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch in their efforts to eradicate slavery and servitude.
Today, the most systematized practices of slavery are conducted as part of the fifteen year Sudanese civil war. These are conducted almost entirely by government-backed armed militia of the Baggara tribe in western Sudan who target the civilian Dinka population of the southern region of Bahr El Ghazal. The government's purpose in arming this tribal militia, known as "muraheleen," appears to be to conduct a cost-reduced counterinsurgency war against the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (the "SPLM/A,") which is identified with the Dinka tribe of southern Sudan. Thus, the tribal militia, often operating with government troops and usually transported into Bahr El Ghazal by military train, raid civilian Dinka villages with impunity looting cattle and food as well as abducting women and children for use as domestic slaves and sometimes as "wives" or concubines. The abductees are considered war booty, although the muraheleen diligently avoid any attacks on military targets and do not attack villages where the SPLA might be present. Their purpose is to abduct and loot, not to risk themselves in combat. Their "war" effort is directed exclusively towards civilians, which is a gross violation of international humanitarian law.
The abducted children and women often lead lives of extreme deprivation and cruelty at the hands of their masters. Many are physically and sexually abused, and forced to live at a standard well below that of their captors (sleeping on the floor, provided with minimum food and no chance for education.) Beatings for "disobedience" are common. These people are denied their ethnic heritage, language, religion, and identity as they are cut off from their families and held by their Arabic-speaking captors, most of whom rename the abductees with Arabic names and some of whom coerce the children and women into adopting Islam. Those who force these changes on their captives often are convinced that they are doing a favor for the captives; they regard the Dinka culture as inferior and believe that the abductees are fortunate to have been incorporated into a superior culture.
Human Rights Watch has called on the government of Sudan to take firm measures to stamp out this practice and prosecute those responsible for it, including law enforcement officers who fail to assist the victims and their families who are searching for them. The victims' families have consistently complained that local government officials, including police, have rarely helped them when they have traveled to western Sudan in an attempt to locate and free their abducted children. Thus the government of Sudan is guilty not only of knowingly arming, transporting and assisting the slave-raiding militia but also of not enforcing its own laws against kidnapping, assault, and forced labor. There is, however, no prohibition in the Sudan Criminal Code of 1991 against slavery.
The government of Sudan, until recently, has stonewalled on the issue of slavery, claiming it was a matter of rival tribes engaging in hostage-taking over which they had little control. This is inaccurate, as myriad reports coming out of southern Sudan have made abundantly clear. Recently, on the eve of the arrival in Sudan of the UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan, the government announced that it would prosecute slavers and urged the population to report cases of slavery.
Since 1995, several groups of non-Sudanese Christians have endeavored to assist the Dinka to redeem their abducted children and female relatives. These efforts are in addition to efforts that the Dinka have been taking for many years, including networking to identify Dinka children not living with their families in non-Dinka areas, and a variety of other methods designed to free the identified children and women without attracting the attention of the obstructionist local authorities. The families, through middlemen or directly, have long been paying the masters to secure the freedom of abducted relatives--when they could locate the abductees. At times, committees consisting of Dinka chiefs and elders have made formal approaches to Baggara chiefs, appealing to them to free the abductees or to assist the chiefs in locating them. Some of these efforts have borne fruit, and some have not. There are those among the Baggara and local officials (usually from the Dinka or Nuba tribes) who cooperate with the families when asked. They are not in the majority, however. As a result, these self-help measures have been excruciatingly piecemeal.
The danger of continued redemptions is several-fold. Knowledge that there are foreigners (with presumably deep pockets) willing to pay to redeem slaves can only spur on unscrupulous individuals to make a business out of redemption. When the practice started in the mid-1980s, it seemed that the primary motivation of the raiders (in addition to weakening the Dinka population) was to acquire cattle, with slavery as a secondary consideration. The availability of foreign funds poses the risk that those who already conduct the slaving raids on Dinka villages may make abduction the primary motivation, or may abduct children and women for the explicit purpose of gain from the sale or redemption of abductees, even if cattle remain the primary war spoils attraction.
Furthermore, such a monetary incentive for raiding and abduction may work against local agreements between Baggara and Dinka to halt raiding in exchange for access for Baggara cattle to pastures and rivers during the dry season; in past years these local agreements have provided intermittent relief from raiding but are not approved of by the government, which tries to thwart them to preserve raiding as a counterinsurgency tool. Providing the raiders with additional material incentives to raid may well undercut peace efforts.
Finally, there is the risk of fraud in the redemption process. Redemptions are now conducted without reference to lists of missing children and women; the middlemen seem to secure the release of the abductees from their masters without knowing whether there is a family member ready to assume responsibility for the released abductee. This gives rise to the risk of fraud: for instance, unscrupulous middlemen may "borrow" children--with or without the knowledge of their caretakers--who have never been abducted, for the purpose of enlarging a group of slaves (and thus increasing the proceeds from the redemption.) Thus foreigners intending to do good may be deceived by middlemen. These concerns argue for an effective Sudanese and international program to stop abductions and return abductees to their families.
Peter Danchin, Columbia University