Maverick Citizen


Tackling modern slavery in all its forms is the best way of paying reparations for historical slavery


Mukesh Kapila CBE is the former United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan. He is Professor Emeritus of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester; and Senior Adviser to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean. He has served in senior positions at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, United Nations, World Health Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and advised many multilateral institutions including the World Bank, UN agencies, and NGOs. His many awards include a CBE from King Charles III, a Global Citizenship Award of the Institute for Global Leadership, the “I Witness!” award for human rights, and a special resolution of the California State Legislature for “lifetime achievements and meritorious service”. and Twitter @mukeshkapila

Safeguarding migrants and providing legal routes, protecting labour rights and auditing supply chains, combating trafficking, prosecuting offenders, addressing socio-cultural norm and extending social safety nets are all strategies to curb modern slavery.

My own exposure to a form of slavery was as a privileged child in India, waited upon hand and foot by domestic servants. Although my parents taught me to treat them with kindness, there was no getting away from the underlying racism. My carers were considered inferior; coming from an impoverished indigenous tribal community forced them into servitude.

I understood this better several decades later when, as Head of the UN in Sudan, I struggled against a complex network of buyers and sellers of slaves. This was a lucrative accompaniment to the civil war between the Arab North and black South, eventually leading to partition.

It is an unsavoury aspect of our shared humanity that slavery has been at the core of all cultures. Evidence for slavery goes back 11,000 years to Neolithic times and the practice was already institutionalised with the first civilisation in 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia.

Most ancient Athenian families had slaves and the expanding Roman Empire enslaved whole populations. The 8th century Chinese enslaved the Thais, while the Khmer Empire’s iconic Angkor Wat was built by slaves. The 13th century Mongolian invasions established lucrative slave markets. In early Islamic societies, an estimated third of the population had slave status. In the Americas, the Mayas and Aztecs were active slavers.

Societies justified slavery through the right of conquest over other groups perceived as ethnically or racially different, and thus inferior. Or even sub-human, as the Nazis believed when they forced 20 million into forced labour. The Soviet Union’s gulag colonies incarcerated about 18 million people. South Africa’s apartheid system powered its gold, diamond and coal mines on collective racial slavery.

Africa has undoubtedly suffered most, sending 12 million slaves to the Americas with another 6 million killed in the process. Millions were also dispatched northwards into the Gulf and eastwards towards India and Asia. Foreign slavers were undoubtedly cruel with whipping, branding, torturing, and other inhumane treatment.

Intra-African slave trade

But their lucrative trade relied on partnership with domestic slavers victimising their own kind. The intra-African slave trade thrived over centuries with the great slave-trading kingdoms of Ashanti and Dahomey.

However, there was an important difference. European slavery stripped all rights from victims, classifying them as “chattels” with perpetual enslavement extending to their children. African slavery was akin to indentured labour who could be freed and their children were entitled to be born free.

The British colonial empire and especially its great cities of London, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol prospered from trans-Atlantic slavery, as did the French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish empires. Slave labour created the original wealth of the US.

Historic slavery’s impacts continue to haunt us today in terms of income inequalities, discrimination, or socio-political dis-harmony within and between nations. The power of cultural memory in shaping modern perceptions and attitudes cannot be underestimated. How do we reckon with slavery’s legacy, considering that history cannot be undone?

Exposing the past candidly and truthfully is a start as The Guardian has done by investigating the slavery links of its 19th-century founders. Similarly, King Charles III has sanctioned research into the British monarchy’s historical involvement. Monuments and museums of slavery abound and educational curricula include slavery, so that ignorance about our insalubrious past is not an excuse for repetition.

That this is worthwhile is shown by the inspiring story of the struggle to abolish slavery itself. The 1794 revolt by the slaves of French Haiti started a trend, with the British parliament prohibiting the slave trade in 1807 and the US and other countries following suit.  

The anti-slavery movement is the oldest of our human rights endeavours. The equality principles it expounded have influenced the constitutions of many countries, the founding charter of the UN and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its article 4 asserts that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”. Slavery is a crime against humanity under the statutes of the International Criminal Court.

Does present-day contrition atone for past misdeeds? The Netherlands prime minister’s December 2022 apology for his country’s extensive role in slavery evoked mixed reactions. Former colonies felt patronised while a divided Dutch society pointed towards significant racism persisting at home.

The presidents of Benin and Ghana and traditional chiefs from Cameroon and elsewhere have regretted Africa’s own role in slavery, including apologising to Afro-American tourists visiting to discover their roots. The US Congress, European Parliament and the mayor of London, among other entities, have also apologised. Others are consulting lawyers on whether apologies expose them to claims for compensation as opposed to weaker expressions of regret, which are safer, but cause umbrage because they are not felt to be full-hearted. 

Words are cheap

Regardless of their form, words are cheap and if their purpose is to heal long-festering wounds, they have failed. Would they mean more if accompanied by restorative justice?

That is even more contentious when the victims of ancient injuries are long gone, and direct descendants barely traceable. Apart from the difficulty of calculating the monetary value of compensation, what entitles them to personally benefit because of harms to their forebears? By that token, should I be compensated for the British colonisation of my Indian ancestors? For that matter, how do I repay the debt to my family’s forced labour domestics? 

Such debates are philosophically entertaining but practically absurd. Even the Repatriations Commission of the 20-member Caribbean Community of States and Territories recognises that compensation is impractical. Instead, its action plan seeks not damages but development assistance from European colonisers, as well as the right to return and resettle in Africa “stolen populations” who wish to.

There is a curious parallel here between the 250-year-old forced displacement of African slaves to the New World and the present-day migration of desperate Africans to Old Europe.

Development assistance from rich countries including former colonisers totalled $204-billion in 2022. Arguably, this is a type of compensation for impoverishment due to historical exploitation. However, linking past harm with future indemnification takes us into complex territory.

Although Nazi Holocaust survivors have received some restitution, this is no consolation for their massive existential losses. Germany has also agreed to provide reparations to Namibia for the Herero-Nama genocide. Meanwhile, Poland debates with Germany over World War 2 damages and similar disputes will arise with Ukraine claims for Russian aggression.

Korea is still wrangling with Japan for the wartime sexual slavery of its women. The broader slavery restitution debate has parallels in current demands to historic polluters for loss-and-damage payments for vulnerable countries that emitted least carbon but suffer most from catastrophic disasters.

Similarly, should countries from where pandemics such as HIV/Aids, Ebola and Covid-19 emerged be liable for compensating the rest of the world?

Slavery, genocides, climate change and pandemics illustrate the numerous wrongs we do to each other through combinations of inadvertent ignorance and deliberate misbehaviour. Collective harms need joint solutions that require learning from our transgressions, healing our hurts, and striving for a more compassionate world.

Admittedly, this is hard, but this is not helped by a growing blame-and-compensate culture for everything wrong in our world that stirs up even more bitterness at a time of deep geopolitical and socioeconomic divisions. Of course we should spend more on development and humanitarian aid, climate adaptation and mitigation, public health and so on. Because this is unconditionally right for the future of our shared humanity, and not as gestures to appease the past.

Back to slavery. Its modern version is hidden but growing at an alarming rate on all continents. It tricks, traps or traffics 50 million people annually. Commonest is debt bondage, including via forced migration for labour that affects 28 million people (including 3.3 million children) across many supply chains. 

A further 22 million are sexually exploited through forced marriages and prostitution, including underage youngsters. Domestic servitude, child soldiering and trafficking for organs are other dimensions of a sordid trade that generates a massive $150-billion in profits each year.

Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 commits to eradicating modern slavery and numerous conventions and laws exist to promote decent work. But enforcement is very weak. Safeguarding migrants and providing legal routes, protecting labour rights and auditing supply chains, combating trafficking, prosecuting offenders, addressing socio-cultural norms, and extending social safety nets are strategies to curb modern slavery.

It is an aspect of human nature that we are often more comfortable talking about safely distant past issues than gripping difficult current challenges. What better way to settle slavery’s past account than to tackle the flourishing modern slave trade more forcefully? DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Linda Holding Holding says:

    Excellent article! Fully agree that strategies to mitigate current slavery practices should be the main. focus

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A panoramic and deeply historical reflection on a complex issue, which accurately captures the nuances and serious challenges of dealing holistically with the matter.

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