“There is not a man beneath the canopy of Heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” – Frederick Douglass
It is estimated that there are approximately 40 million people enslaved in the world today. That is more than the population of Canada or Poland. To say that slavery ended in the 19th century is a naïve, complacent falsehood and one that continues to cloud the consciousness of the Western world.
Modern day slavery takes different forms. The human rights group Anti-Slavery International defines modern day slavery to include forced labour, debt bondage, human trafficking (a grotesque euphemism if there ever was one), child slavery and forced marriages. Some of these are issues that are known about, but at the very most it is a blurry issue; in a far-off distant land and could never happen in the Western world – let alone in 2019.
Alas, the sad reality is starkly different. The British government estimates that tens of thousands of people are in slavery in the UK today. This is a tragic and appalling situation. Many of those who are exploited are lured to the UK with the promise of a better job and life, however they are then intimidated and brutalised into servitude. Not only is this an outrage, the victims are unlikely to be believed and the police rarely have the resources to carry out complex investigations. Austerity may make this situation worse, however, without public outrage or awareness on the extent of slavery in the UK it is unlikely that any future government will act or care.
That is not to say nothing has been done. In 2015, the British government passed the modern Slavery Act and introduced an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to supervise efforts to eradicate slavery in the UK. The Act also includes protections for victims of slavery and requires large companies to identify modern slavery in their supply chains. These are steps that ought to be encouraged. The vile disease of slavery may not be defeated by a single act of law; however, some progress is better than none.
Despite this, it is essential that the government is unrelenting in pursuing those who channel modern day slaves to and from our country. We must work with others, not just our nearest neighbours but countries around the world, to end this practice. Then maybe, just maybe, those nations begin to harness the freedom of those victims to build a prosperous and more peaceful future. We may count ourselves ‘civilised,’ but we also stand to gain from the ending of slavery. It is only the foolish or naïve who refuse to countenance that British men, women or children are unaffected by slavery today.
A potential and powerful ally in this fight may be found across the Atlantic. The United States – still dealing with the painful legacy of slavery, civil war and abolition – was founded on the universal principle that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It is true that Jefferson owned slaves and it took years of brutal civil war to finally enforce that original message, but the very idea of the American Republic is one of freedom and liberty.
The U.S. faces its own issues with modern day slavery. According to The Guardian, it is estimated that around 400,000 people live in enforced servitude in the United States. It would be unfair to those victims – and the people of the United States, to divert all their efforts overseas while such a large number of slaves languished within their own borders. However, this is not to say that the U.S. cannot have an impact globally. On the contrary, their federal government has outlined federal agencies to work together to combat modern day slavery. America acknowledges different forms of exploitation, and President Donald Trump has committed to “solve this horrific problem” when he addressed the Listening Session on Domestic and International Human Trafficking in February of 2017. It remains to be seen whether or not the President is committed to continuing efforts against slavery, but this is hopefully an issue where every politician – irrespective of ideology – can support.
The term ‘un-American’ is bandied about fairly often in political commentary stateside, but to be pro-slavery is to be pro-tyranny. And to be pro-tyranny is most certainly un-American, as it is in-human. The U.S. could aid developing nations around the world on how to spot slavery and continue to fight those jihadist terror organisations that utilise it to spread fear and intimidate those that they subjugate. We would be wise to support this.
There are those that will say that this is all very noble. That it is laudable, even praiseworthy that we as a nation and a culture seek to eradicate modern day slavery. But they will cry, who are we to lecture others? How can we argue for a universal morality?
To be anti-slavery is to insist that every human, every human, deserves to be free and to flourish how they see fit. These are not exclusively Western values or principles, but their adaptation here (by and large) has undoubtedly helped Western nations in their development. There are countless people, across the world and from varying cultures, struggling every day to ascertain the basic liberties and rights we take for granted here. Just because a despot or tyrant may rule in a foreign land does not mean that the people he rules supports him. Often the contrary is true. It would be morally outrageous to abandon those who are struggling for a better life.
The West, and the United Kingdom in particular, may have a troubled history with colonial brutality but that does not mean we should abandon those we once ruled. We owe it to former colonial nations – to any nation – that wants to embrace liberty and prosperity and strive to improve the lives of its citizens or those groups struggling against despotism day to day. This does not mean by definition that those peoples must sacrifice their indigenous culture or practices; it is merely the suggestion that we aid those who have the mere audacity to demand the possibility of change. It is ironic that those who advocate for social and economic change, often radical in nature, at the domestic level, here often abandon those who are attempting to secure it for themselves across the world. This is not true of every proclaimed radical, however, I have begun to notice that moral relativism that prohibits action and support of those who love freedom in the world is informed through cowardice or callous indifference. This is a tremendous shame. In the fight against slavery, in all its disgusting forms, any and all allies will be needed.
One of the regrettable consequences of modern adversarial politics – especially in these particularly polarised times – is that any proposed measure or policy of sitting governments are usually opposed by their opposition. This is an important feature of a mature democracy, but this is an area where there is a potential for serious cooperation between our political parties. It may be true that they will have varying policies and policy goals between them, but all mainstream political forces oppose modern slavery and ought to work together to solve it.
Currently, there is no committee dedicated to the eradication of modern-day slavery and exploitation. This should change and change soon. We are consumed by the ‘Brexit’ debate, but there will be a post-Brexit political consciousness in our society. I sincerely hope that modern day slavery is not forgotten or cast aside. It is up to us to remind our representatives that this matters to us; not just in the here and now but what our moral epitaph will be to those who succeed us. There are many issues and challenges facing the United Kingdom – and indeed Western civilisation – aside from the debates of the present day.
In recent times we have suffered from a drop in long-term thinking and vision. If the eradication of modern slavery – within the UK alone, at least – is not pressed into our political consciousness to form a target within a half century, then it will have lingered on far too long. Every passing moment that slavery lingers is a moment too long.
It is time once again for a new birth of freedom across the Western world, for those hidden out of sight and suppressed in abhorrent bondage.
Liberty Must Take the Day! Or we will be unworthy of its fruits.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!