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Modern-day abolitionists: Putting Britain at the forefront of fighting slavery

September 27, 2016

I’ve contributed an essay on slavery to a collection on British foreign policy, launched by Save the Children today.

Our Today, Their Tomorrow includes contributions from high profile politicians, business leaders, think tanks and leading academics. These contributions set out a modern British foreign and development policy that has children at its heart. Taken together, the collection provides a compelling narrative about Brexit Britain’s role in the world – one that urges the Government not to retreat, but to take this opportunity to forge a genuinely Global Britain. The full collection can be found here.

Our Today, Their Tomorrow
How British leadership can build a better world for children

Chapter 2.5 Nick Grono: Modern-day abolitionists: Putting Britain at the forefront of fighting slavery

Following Brexit, Theresa May’s government will need to recast the role it plays in global affairs. As it becomes increasingly independent of the European Union, the UK should pursue opportunities that draw on its historical legacy and acknowledged development strengths to serve its national interest, enhance its global reputation and contribute to the greater global good.

Leading the fight against modern slavery internationally will help achieve all of these goals. The UK should build upon its past abolitionist achievements and seek to complete the mission of William Wilberforce and his fellow activists to end slavery around the world. Such an approach would provide a powerful organising principle for the UK’s international development work, and help make the world a better place for its most marginalised and vulnerable people. It would also reaffirm the UK as an outward-looking and internationalist nation.

Theresa May has already declared modern slavery “the great human rights issue of our time” and committed to “[ridding] our world of this barbaric evil.” This commitment should form the basis of an ambitious anti-slavery agenda that – given this crime flourishes in environments where there is corruption, poverty, vulnerability, and weak rule of law – will also advance the UK’s hard-earned reputation as a leading global development actor.

The persistence of slavery
At the end of the 18th century, slavery was a broadly accepted fact of life within the UK and around the world. It formed a significant component of British trade, and powerful economic interests profited handsomely from it. Yet in the space of just over two decades a small, visionary band of abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, were able to persuade the UK government to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade and then deploy the full force of the Royal Navy to enforce that prohibition. That was followed by the abolition of slavery in America in 1865, and prohibition of slavery internationally.

Yet slavery as a broader phenomenon has persisted right up to the present day. Though it is illegal under international law, and in every country, the Global Slavery Index estimates some 45.6 million people around the globe are nevertheless enslaved.

In West Africa enslaved children pick cocoa for our chocolate; in the Congo, men, women and children are compelled by militias to mine minerals for our smartphones; Burmese migrants are trapped on Thai fishing boats and forced to fish seafood that ends up on our supermarket shelves; and slave-picked cotton from Uzbekistan and exploited workers in Bangladesh are used to make our dirt cheap t-shirts.

Of course, slavery doesn’t just exist in business supply chains. Around the world, vulnerable girls and women in search of better lives are tricked and deceived and then forced to work in brothels, and raped on a nightly basis. Or they are forced into marriages where they are not only sexually abused but also subjected to lives of domestic servitude.

Conflict-ridden countries and those with weak institutions are at particular risk of slavery, along with many other evils – as currently seen with child soldiers in South Sudan, and the sexual slavery of girls and women practiced by ISIS and Boko Haram.

Sadly, the varieties of this criminal trade are nearly endless, but the essence is the same: violent and coercive exploitation of the most vulnerable human beings, who are deprived of their liberty and forced to work for others’ gain.

Slavery persists because, in its modern form – encompassing forced and bonded labour, human trafficking, the worst forms of child labour and forced marriage – it is a lucrative criminal enterprise that generates $150 billion in profits per year. This makes it one of the most profitable international criminal industries, second only to the trade in illicit drugs.

It thrives when three factors intersect: the demand for excessively cheap labour; individual vulnerability and marginalisation (which can take many forms, such as caste, ethnicity, gender, illiteracy, and migrant status, or just sheer poverty and lack of economic alternatives); and weak rule of law, which results in a fundamental failure to both implement anti-slavery laws and to internalise the international norms against slavery and extreme exploitation, allowing slavery to thrive. It is enabled by corruption, is practised by abusive power-holders, and hobbles development by imposing significant costs on communities and states.

What the UK can do
As Pope Francis has noted, slavery is a “global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country.” To tackle this entrenched crime, we need a renewed and robust abolitionist movement committed to ending slavery across the globe. We need powerful political leadership. We need businesses to get serious about tackling slavery in their supply chains. And we need to empower consumers to choose products free of slavery.

The UK government should play a leading role in advancing all of these goals internationally. And in so doing, it can promote a robust human rights approach to global development, and put the rule of law at the centre of its efforts.

It has already made a good start: the UK government was instrumental in ensuring the eradication of modern slavery was included in the Global Goals. Now it has a key role to play in making certain this goal is implemented by the UN and member states. It can start by supporting much greater investment to measure slavery at a country level, and fund research to identify the most effective interventions.

The UK can also assist other countries to develop robust and effective anti-slavery legislation of their own. While all states prohibit slavery, these prohibitions take various forms – combining legislation against slavery and human trafficking and forced labour. The UK passed its own progressive and effective Modern Slavery Act in 2015, under Theresa May’s leadership as Home Secretary, and the UK could play a valuable role in assisting other states, including those with a high prevalence of slavery, to develop and implement similar legislation.

Recognition of the central role of business and consumers in fighting modern slavery prompted the inclusion of a supply chain clause in the Act. This requires businesses operating in the UK with an annual turnover above £36 million to publish a statement each year detailing the steps they are taking to ensure that slavery is not part of their own business or their supply chains. Properly implemented this will help consumers, investors, and the broader public to engage with businesses on modern slavery, as well as incentivise senior management to take action.

But while greater supply chain transparency is key to tackling slavery, it does impose a regulatory burden on companies required to comply with the UK Act. So the government should make it a priority to internationalise these provisions to help create a level playing field for UK-registered businesses competing internationally with those not covered by the Modern Slavery Act.

In encouraging widespread adoption of transparency regimes, the UK should model its approach on the successful efforts to promote anti-corruption legislation globally. In that case, the key elements of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act were progressively adopted by other countries, culminating in the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention of 1997 and a much more robust international regulatory regime on bribery.

Implementing the UK’s anti-slavery agenda
Fighting slavery should have broad support from states around the world. It is not a particularly contentious issue geopolitically. It is prohibited under international law and in every country. It is widely acknowledged to be morally abhorrent. Ending it not only extinguishes an injustice but also enables people to contribute more productively to their communities, creating greater prosperity.

But actually ending slavery is much more complex, and requires tackling deeply entrenched economic, cultural, religious and institutional practices. It requires normative change, so that governments, business and individuals not only believe that slavery is wrong, but act on that belief.

Restart the campaign
The 18th century abolitionists understood the need to change norms. Thomas Clarkson and his colleagues were remarkably innovative in developing campaign tools, many of which we take for granted these days. These included: investigative reports and journalism, letter writing campaigns, consumer boycotts, use of powerful images to shape opinions (most notably the devastatingly powerful diagram of a slave ship jam-packed with its human cargo), and strategic litigation. They even established the world’s oldest human rights NGO, the forerunner of today’s Anti-Slavery International.

These tools all lend themselves to powerful anti-slavery campaigns today. As part of its broader program of work, the government should partner with campaign organisations with similar objectives to mobilise voters and consumers and help change social norms.

International summit
To kick-start its global campaign, the UK government should host an international summit on modern slavery, in the vein of the 2014 Girl Summit. The objectives of such a summit would be to encourage coordinated state action, the best use of resources, and innovative and impactful policy-making. To produce real on-the-ground benefits it would need significant grassroots involvement and result in concrete and substantial outcomes such as a ground-breaking national and international commitment to anti-slavery measures, business commitments to rooting out slavery in their supply chains, and the significant mobilisation of new funds.

International organisations
The UK is also very well placed to use its membership of, and influential role in, key international organisations to advance the anti-slavery agenda.

As a member of the UN Security Council’s P5, the UK has significant influence within the larger UN system. It should work to ensure that slavery is high on the agenda of the next UN Secretary General. It should also push for better coordination and coherence in the UN’s anti-slavery efforts through the appointment of a special envoy tasked with developing a proposal for a Global Partnership to End Modern Slavery, mainstreaming UN system-wide action and developing system-wide thematic guidance, and developing effective supply chain transparency measures to ensure that legitimate businesses and the UN itself do not unwittingly encourage modern slavery, an area where the UK can lend particular expertise.

The UK could similarly capitalise on its lead role in The Commonwealth by illuminating the links between corruption (which The Commonwealth has already done significant work on) and modern slavery. It could also encourage the broader Commonwealth to adopt the UK’s model of corporate disclosure of policies and practices to tackle slavery in supply chains.

The OECD is already very active on anti-bribery measures through its working groups and has issued standard-setting guidance on modern slavery and supply chains. It is therefore an obvious avenue for significant UK engagement with, and pressure on, other states to adopt policies and legislation to combat slavery.

Post-Brexit, the G20 and B20 summits provide opportunities for the UK to both smooth its relations with some of its European neighbours and at the same time clearly reassert its international standing and leadership role. The modern slavery issue offers an ideal vehicle, given its truly global relevance and universally accepted ethical and economic validity. The UK should put the issue firmly on the G20 agenda, and work to ensure both agreements for practical reform measures and sound recommendations for longer-term action.

At the G7 in May 2016, leaders made a short but important reference in their final declaration to modern slavery and the need for a collective response. Future engagement at this forum could go a long way towards spurring wide reaching and fundamental change across the globe. Certainly at both the G20 and G7, more needs to be done to drive home the fact that effectively tackling all forms of slavery will produce broader success across the entire economic, trade and development agenda.

Evil can be defeated
Two centuries ago, the UK led global efforts to abolish the slave trade.
If there is one overarching lesson to take from the success of Britain’s
18th century abolitionists, it is that – however insurmountable the task of eliminating slavery may appear – this evil can be defeated by international leadership and a modern movement that persuades states and business to meet their responsibility to end this crime.

At a time when governments across the world are walking back from their human rights commitments, and the progress made in recent decades to protect the most vulnerable is at risk of stalling, the fight against modern slavery is one of the very few human rights battles today where we are seeing tangible success. We need to build on and accelerate this progress.

By taking the global lead in this fight, the UK could have a truly
significant impact, showing real, measurable progress in the next decade
on a fundamental human rights issue, as well as reaffirming that the UK
remains an outward-facing and internationalist nation despite its decision to leave the European Union. The UK has long driven global efforts to end slavery – it now has the opportunity to double-down on this effort and be at the forefront of the abolition of this egregious crime.

Written by
Nick Grono