Interview of Manuel Ette - A modern perspective on slavery


While this Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in the United States, the first congressional hearing in a decade has been held to discuss compensation for the descendants of US slaves. We interviewed Manuel Ette, historian who also is our national delegate of Austria.

Ambassadeurs de la Jeunesse : Recently France commemorated the abolition of slavery. What about such commemorations nowadays around the world ?

Manuel ETTE : France is not the only country commemorating the abolition of slavery. After the founding days of the legal abolishment, there are gradually a historical recognition and measures to combat discrimination inherited from this past.

There are two international dates inscribed in the commemorative calendar: on 23 August for the "International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition" and on 2 December, with the "International Day for the Abolition of Slavery", which includes the fight against contemporary forms of slavery.

Moreover, each State commemorates this tragic history according to its own traditions, legacies and to its involvement into it.

In the United States, a law was necessary to end the segregation of African Americans inherited from slavery, and then to fight against discrimination. Nowadays, the commemoration, the work of memory and history goes through major events such as the Black Month History and major projects of museum institutions, such as the future National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

But even if ancient slavery was abolished, there is a new form that is still existing today: modern slavery.

A.J : In some countries like the USA, debates persist on the question of compensations. Why is there a broad debate on that matter ?

M.E : Well, it is nothing new. Discussion on "repaying" African Americans has been since the US Civil War - officially ending slavery in the country - a very polemical topic.

Experts have evaluated the worth of slavery labour from billions to trillions of dollars. But, even after the official end of the slave trade, ancient slaves were denied education, voting rights, and the right to own property, treated in many ways as second-class citizens.

Those arguing for reparations point to these historic inequalities as reasons for current schisms between white and black Americans when it comes to income, housing, healthcare and incarceration rates.

A.J : You talked about "modern" slavery, does it replace "ancient" slavery or is it an additional notion ?

M.E : To really understand what we are talking about I think it is necessary to give a clear definition of "ancient" slavery, including: "slavery, forced labour or human trafficking".

"Slavery" refers to the condition of treating another person as if they were property - something to be bought, sold, traded or even destroyed. "Forced labour" is a related but not identical concept, referring to work taken without consent, by threats or coercion. "Human trafficking" is another related concept, referring to the process through which people are brought, through deception, threats or coercion, into slavery, forced labour, or other forms of severe exploitation.

Those 3 elements are widely recognized in international treaties through the Slavery Convention, the Forced Labour Convention and the Trafficking Protocol.

However, it is questionable to believe that slavery is fully abolished. Experts had pointed out the existence of a new form of slavery, a modern slavery which is part of our society.

Even if it has no legal definition, it has a political one as "situations like the exploitation of a person who cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power". For instance, it concerns people whose passport might have been taken away, whose families are under threats and which experienced violence on a regular basis.

Therefore, an umbrella of different terminologies is used to describe modern slavery which includes concepts such as human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sale or exploitation of children. We are talking about 40 million people.

Under this range of concepts, Mauritania ranks first on the prevalence of slavery in the world - 25% of the population is deemed to be enslaved. The nine other nations with the highest prevalence are: Haiti, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Moldova, Benin, the Ivory Coast, the Gambia and Gabon.

The Walk Free Foundation ranks countries by the absolute number of people in slavery. The ten countries with the most slaves are: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Together these countries account for 76% of the 29.8 million people in slavery worldwide.

The main difference between ancient and modern slavery is the notion of property since in modern slavery, there is no property on people as such as in ancient slavery from the 18th century.

Even if in both forms there is a separation between genders, modern slavery is clearly concerning women and girls who represent 71% of the victims. Taken from their families, those women are forced into prostitution or are involved in forced marriage. Moreover, 25% of the victims are under aged and are forced to labour in cloths factories for instance.

We are not enough aware about the fact that even in Europe there is modern slavery. It is not a foreign thing; it is right in front of our door.

A.J : What is doing the international community to fight against that scourge?

M.E : Regarding ancient slavery, it was not suddenly gone after its abolition. Today, African Americans have still troubles to integrate in American society for example.

It is important to break the silence on the subject. Therefore, the international community created the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition and commemorates it every year on 23 August.

Regarding the fight against modern slavery, the international community works on to stop this scourge. For instance, the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have launched the Global Action to Prevent and Address Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants (GLO.ACT). It was created in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 2019.

Many tools have also been created such as The Human Trafficking Knowledge Portal which facilitates the dissemination of information regarding the implementation of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and specifically the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. It hosts a Case Law Database on officially documented court cases concerning trafficking in persons and a Database on Legislation.

Another example is the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT) which is a policy forum mandated by the UN General Assembly to improve coordination among UN agencies and relevant international organizations to facilitate a holistic and comprehensive approach to preventing and combating trafficking in persons, including protection and support for victims of trafficking.

At the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), they work to ensure that police are trained and equipped to identify and investigate cases of modern slavery in all forms.

However, education is an important actor to fight against it. Next generations should be informed and aware of it. Raise awareness to make people think about it, be aware that it is not so far away and that it is a problem. Thus, they could adopt the good attitude if they witness it or hear about something that seems to be more likely to be modern slavery which could help the authorities and save many people.