Is slavery invincible?

The right not to be enslaved is one of the two absolute human rights that cannot be violated on any ground whatsoever. However, 65 years after its denunciation, slavery continues to resist the corpus of human rights. Why the asymmetry ?

Mukunda Kattel
6 December 2013

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which provides the source for the modern body of human rights, establishes two rights as absolute: those against ‘slavery’ and ‘torture’. All other rights are qualified and, as such, are realised only within a prescribed limitation.

Outraged at the horror of World War II, particularly of the Holocaust that killed as many as 11 million people, the western countries that suffered worst during the war resolved to promote the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the foundation for “freedom, justice and peace in the world.” This first preamble of the UDHR, which was drafted under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘the first lady of the world’ as a US president called her in high regard, was both a response to the devastating Nazi ideology, which provided the cover for the Holocaust, as well as a promise to the people at large that their future would not be unequal, unjust and violent. To realise the promise, the UDHR offered the programme of the ‘rule of law’ in its third preamble, a programme with which only a handful of western states were perhaps familiar when the UDHR was promulgated (by the General Assembly of the United Nations) on 10 December 1948.

Sixty-five years on, The Global Slavery Index 2013 reports that some 30 million people in the world are in “modern slavery”: in “the possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal” (p.11). One of the two human rights that the world committed itself to protecting turns out to be a hollow hyperbole. (It could be the same with the other as well, but that is not the present topic of discussion) Modern slavery is a global reality, as the Index establishes. But some parts of the world are more at fault than others.

My region, South Asia, features shamefully in the Index. Some 56 per cent of those trapped in one or the other form of what constitutes the compact of modern slavery – ‘human  trafficking’, ‘forced labour’, ‘forced or servile marriage’, ‘sale or exploitation of children’ and so on – are in this region. The country with the largest number of the enslaved in the world is India, with some 14 million people, 47 per cent of the global total, caught in the trap of modern slavery. Pakistan is the third largest, with two million people in slavery, which is some seven per cent of the global total figure. Other South Asian countries with a sizable number of the enslaved are Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. (Bhutan and the Maldives are not included in the count.)

All these countries are ‘democracies’. They hold periodic elections, have constitutions that protect basic liberties and freedoms, and are party to almost all international instruments that strongly condemn and absolutely prohibit slavery. Yet, slavery continues to exist.  

Why slavery sustains itself so vehemently in South Asia can be a puzzling question if it is not linked to the colonial history of the region and the legacy it has bequeathed. Except Nepal, all these states were part of the British Empire until the mid-1940s, and, as such, were severely subjected to the policy of ‘divide and conquer,’ which the British rulers reinforced by exploiting the “caste system” that was culturally prevalent in some community pockets.

The caste system divides people into four vertically hierarchical categories, with each category having assigned to it a certain duty defined along the binary opposite of ‘fair-unfair’ and ‘pure-impure’. Upward mobility is impossible in the hierarchy. Equally impossible is for the so-called ‘low-caste’ to engage in ‘fair’ or ‘pure’ jobs and processes, such as education, decision-making and governance. The system came in handy for the British rulers to politically compartmentalize the huge population and pit one against another using a culturally tolerated ‘pure-impure’ rhetoric. As such, the Empire enabled only a few ‘high-caste’ groups to participate in state/political processes, however limited they were. The so-called ‘low-caste’ were kept far away from ‘politics’ as they had other menial jobs to do.

When the British Empire collapsed in 1947, the new rulers, who hailed basically from high-caste and privileged groups, played around with the colonial institutions instead of overhauling them. They concentrated on expanding a political space for them, but paid no attention to empowering those thrown aside by the erstwhile regime. The political inequality created by the colonial masters thus continued even in the postcolonial order, leaving a huge chunk of the population outside the political orbit. These political ‘leftovers’ are what count as slaves in South Asia now.

Is there no answer to this crime? There is! And it is the “rule of law” as referenced in the UDHR, which, to me, is the assurance given by the community of states under the United Nations that they would restructure themselves and their behaviour to protect the vulnerable from violations of their “inherent dignity” and “inalienable rights”.

The west was expected to take the lead in this mission. Unfortunately, protection of the vulnerable was not its priority. Nothing could be more shameful.

But we, concerned citizens, are also responsible. We have failed to fight to the extent it was necessary to ‘name and shame’ the ruling elites benefiting from such crime. We also failed to collect more empirical facts and build a reservoir of voices against them. We also could not do enough to free the victims from the karmic pacifist argument that to be in slavery was their fate. We failed to enable them to see the unkind history behind them, and empower them to question why they are in a situation they are in now. The victims’ empowerment should be the priority for all of us, particularly the human rights educators and defenders in the field.

Once the victims start asking questions, the rulers will have no luxury of choice over whether to keep their lips locked.

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