“All that is necessary . . .

Written in 1999, this article, very sadly, still stands today.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing", Edmund Burke.

“All that is necessary . . .

by Quentin Langley

Dateline 26 July 1999

One hundred and sixty six years ago this month (01 August 1833) slavery was abolished in the British Empire. After two decades of bitter argument and a bloody civil war the USA followed suit. This century has seen numerous international conventions to abolish slavery altogether. But is has not happened yet. And there is no sign that abolition is imminent.

The country most often singled out for criticism by campaigners against slavery is Sudan - though it should be noted that the Sudanese government denies there is any slavery there. What is beyond dispute is that throughout the country, especially in the largely black African south – the north of the country is mostly Arab – kidnapping of people for forced labour is widespread. Having been kidnapped these people are sold openly in public markets. The Sudanese government describes this as ransoming. Others call it slavery.

The dispute about terminology is emotive, arcane, and largely pointless. According to the government the fact that people are kidnapped and ransomed in Sudan does not mean there is slavery there – after all, such things happen in the West too. They are more common in poor, divided, countries where the government lacks the ability to impose the rule of law. Observers from human rights groups insist that the government, at the very least, turns a blind eye to the enslavement of the black population, as it bolsters the government’s plans to Islamise the south where the majority are Animist, with Moslem and Christian minorities.

If the law does not recognise, and courts will not enforce, ownership of one person by another, then, technically, it is not slavery. But the abuse of human rights continues, whatever label you apply to it. The Sudan is a country where disputes are rarely settled in court. People are treated as slaves, and other people behave as if they are owners. It matters little to either of these groups what words we use to describe their status.

But if, as Edmund Burke wrote in 1795, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” then it is for good people everywhere to decide what they should do about slavery in Sudan. The trouble is, no path is without controversy. Is it right for large, powerful, countries to impose their values on smaller, weaker, countries? In the nineteenth century there was no question on that point. For years before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire, the Royal Navy had imposed a British ban on the transatlantic slave trade. But this was the same thinking under which the Empire sought to “civilise” the “heathens”. And under which The Sudan imposes Islam on the “infidels”.

If we hesitate to use coercive government action against The Sudan, maybe there are actions that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can take? Perhaps, but it is NGOs which have pioneered the most controversial approach. Some groups, including Christian Solidarity International (CSI), buy slaves in Sudan and return them to their families. CSI boasts it has “redeemed” 5,942 slaves.

Plainly this brings benefits to the individuals concerned: many have been rescued from appalling conditions. But, like most NGOs, CSI has little or no appreciation of market forces. As long as slaves are a traded commodity, creating a new market will drive up the price and encourage those who kidnap people for profit. It is likely that for every slave “redeemed” by Western groups one or more new slaves has been kidnapped. If the market for slaves is anything like every other market in the World – and it is, that is the problem – then it is certain that there are more slaves in Sudan today than there would be if Western Groups had not entered the market. Especially as Westerners pay using hard currencies that Sudanese merchants cannot easily obtain for other goods.

Supporters of “redemption” point out that forcing up the price of slaves brings benefits to those who remain enslaved. If they are more valuable then their owners will be more likely to see to their welfare. This may be true. But as long as Westerners redeem the most sorely abused slaves then they also create incentives for owners to abuse their slaves and cash in on the dollars available.

So, perhaps one thing we can do is to ban NGOs from raising funds to buy slaves. Most Western countries have laws to prohibit the slave trade, and may well be able to use them to prosecute the officers of groups like CSI. This would have the additional benefit of highlighting the plight of Sudanese slaves in the Western media. But in a pure propaganda war, it is not clear that prosecuting authorities would emerge ahead of the NGOs.

Market forces are anonymous, and this always puts those who understand them at a disadvantage in propaganda terms. CSI can easily point to – and produce for media interview – individuals, who were slaves but are now free, to make its case. We can be sure that there are people now enslaved who would be free if it were not for Western money entering the market, yet we do not know which slaves owe their status to the actions of CSI.

Perhaps aid and investment to The Sudan can be made conditional on firm action to prevent the slave trade. But, arguably, it is aid and investment that will do the most to alleviate the conditions in which slavery thrives.

One thing is certain. The case against slavery may be clear and simple, but a course of action against it is not. Well-intentioned efforts are currently exacerbating things. Firm action by the West is sure to be controversial. It was ever thus. In its campaign to rid the Atlantic of slaver ships the Royal Navy sank ships fully laden with slaves. At least that hit the profits of the slave traders. Today’s NGOs are boosting them.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 26 July 1999

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