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Abolition Today: Ending Modern Slavery
General Assembly 2003 Event 2051
Rev. William Sinkford; Dr. Charles Jacobs, President, American Anti-Slavery Group; Francis Bok; Mr. Vivek Pandit
“Most of us probably thought that slavery was one problem we had put behind us,” said Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President The Rev. William Sinkford in his introductory remarks to a gathering of more than 400 Unitarian Universalists (UUs) in Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
“After all, slavery had been outlawed in this country since Abolition in 1865, and the 1927 Slavery Convention and the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights made it illegal to hold or trade slaves anywhere in the world. We thought we had this one pretty well fixed. But this is a problem that is so far from being behind us that it will blow your mind as it has blown mine. Human slavery is thriving….For Unitarian Universalists…the continued existence of slavery around the world in the 21st century poses a challenge that most of us have thus far not addressed.”
Sinkford clarified that the current forms of slavery—debt bondage, chattel slavery, sexual servitude and forced labor—often do not resemble the type that flourished in the United States. He cited the afternoon presentation’s first speaker, Dr. Charles Jacobs, founder and president of the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston, as someone who is awakening peoples’ consciousness to the issue of modern slavery.
Jacobs presented some astounding statistics: There are 27 million slaves today, more than in any other time of human history. That is approximately the population of Canada. And according to the C.I.A., about 50,000 people are brought into the United States every year to be slaves. “Slavery,” he said, “is the stepchild of the Human Rights Movement….Mostly, the civilized world sits by. No major human rights organization has placed on its mandate the freeing of today’s slaves. Our support has come from the grassroots. And here our experience tells us that three groups have been our biggest supporters. We jocularly refer to this abolitionist trio as ‘blacks, Jews and UUs’.”
Jacobs called Unitarian Universalism “the Abolitionist church.” He pointed out that UU history is one of dedication to abolitionism. He recounted an incident when The Rev. Theodore Parker took a stand against Southern slave-catchers when they came to Boston: “He took a group of Universalist men to the hotel where the slave-catchers were lodging, and he surrounded them, and he jostled them, and he intimidated them, and he told them that they had better for their own safety go back and leave these slaves free. And the slavers looked into Parker’s eyes and looked at the men with him, and they went back home.”
Jacobs defined slaves as “people who are forced to work under the threat of violence for little or no pay.” Some examples of modern slaves are the rug-weaving children in Pakistan, India and Nepal; the virgin girls in Ghana who are given by their fathers to village shamen as sex slaves in order to cleanse their fathers’ sins; the sex traffic of girls and boys in India and other Asian countries; Bangladeshi boys sold to racing camel owners in the Persian Gulf to become camel jockeys. According to Jacobs, today’s slaves might be born into debt bondage, sold by a parent to earn money to feed the rest of the family, or lured by the promise of better work, or inherited or traded.
To better understand slavery, said Jacobs, “Do not look at the identity of the victim; look at the identity of the oppressor.”
He introduced to the audience Francis Bok, whom he called “a modern-day Frederick Douglass.” Since his escape from slavery in the Sudan, Bok has been speaking to groups in the United States about the conditions of slavery and the imperative to end it.
Bok, whose autobiography (“Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity and My Journey to Freedom in America”) will be published later this year, summarized his experiences of a decade of brutality and the determination to be free that kept him alive. “I told myself I would escape someday,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I am not an animal’.”
He told a harrowing tale of sudden capture and ultimate escape, and appealed to the audience to act on behalf of others who are still enslaved. “I came as a representative of millions of people…,” he said. “I came to ask you to join the new Abolitionist movement that is in your blood, that is in your history, and that I know is in your heart.”
Jacobs returned to the podium to address the question of what UUs can do to abolish slavery. He insisted that we must get past our reluctance to talk about slavery and to take action to end it, that we must get over the perception that we seem hypocritical when we do, given our own past with slavery. “Universalism can only have one meaning: That every man, woman and child on this earth is fashioned in the image of God….”
On behalf of his organization, Jacobs offered the following as ways to get involved with the abolition of modern slavery:
- Educate yourself
- Join the Freedom Action Network
- Download our free curriculum
- Book a speaker
Rev. Sinkford then introduced Vivek Pandit, of the UUA’s Holdeen India Program and co-winner, along with his wife, Vidyullata Pandit, of Anti-Slavery International’s 1999 Anti-Slavery Award. Sinkford explained that bonded labor is illegal in India but the laws are rarely enforced. “Pandit’s method for freeing bonded slaves, therefore, is simply to convince them to declare themselves free and walk away,” he said.
Pandit told his story of a journey that began with an unawareness of the existence of bonded laborers in his country, through his struggles to help those laborers, and finally, to a place of greater success. In his early years of dissent he and his family were beaten by owners of laborers, including his own uncle. “There are no shortcuts to freeing slaves…,” Pandit said. “The only answer to (freeing) bonded slaves is to organize them….Buying their freedom is not the answer, because it encourages masters to keep more.”
Participants appeared to be greatly moved by the afternoon’s speakers, giving each a standing ovation after their presentation. Sinkford closed the program by saying “This afternoon, here, we have been in the presence of heroes.”
Reported by Jeanette Leardi.
Address by Mr. Vivek Pandit
View the slideshow (PDF, 22 pages) that accompanies this address.
Hon'ble Mr. Bill Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, Ms. Olivia Holmes Chairperson of the Holdeen India Programme, Ms. Kathy Sreedhar, Executive Director of the Holdeen India Programme, distinguished guests, and all the representatives of Unitarian Universalists from different countries, who walk side by side with the struggling people around the world, who share the trials and tribulations of the oppressed, who are committed to the creation of a world of equality and dignity.
I am here today because I want to tell you a story.
Almost 24 years ago, I moved from Mumbai with my wife to a small village called Dahisar. It was my uncle's village. We had a commitment to serve the poorest of the poor. At that time we did not know that people lived in slavery as bonded labourers.
Soon we came to know that the village was not a homogeneous community. The indigenous peoples, the tribals, did not live in the village where the upper caste lived. They lived in hamlets in the forests. We learned that for small sums of money loaned by the landlords the tribals were bonded to serve them for life and for generation after generation.
Bonded labour is illegal in India, but the tribals did not know that. However, their masters knew it, but ignored the law and the Constitution. In those days, and even today, the masters often had powerful friends in local and state government who helped them keep the bonded labourers and their families under control. This criminal-political nexus is a major support for the illegal practice of bonded labour and committing brutalities on oppressed people.
Every day, in my uncle's village, the bonded labourers served their masters and every day they suffered inhuman bondage. Every day the masters through their speech and behaviour reaffirmed the sub-human existence of the bonded labourers. Every minute the bonded labourers believed they were not free. They had no land, no home, often no food, no clothes. Their children didn't go to school. For every step they took they had to seek permission, and always there was a palpable fear of the master. That is how their parents had lived, and their grandparents. The men inherited their father's debts and the women were tied first to the masters of their fathers and then the masters of their husbands. They taught themselves the virtue of silence before the master.
We started telling the tribals that they could become free. The masters, including my uncle's family, started treating us with animosity because we were openly challenging the system of bonded labour, but the tribals ran away when they saw us, because they thought we were the agents of the masters. Then, on our Independence Day, we organized a programme in the village and sang a song in which we described how the bonded labourers were not free even though the country was free, and how our only goal was now to see them free.
Soon thereafter, my own uncle and other masters beat us up and threw out our meager possessions. The news of that incident spread like wildfire to the tribal hamlets. That night, for the first time the tribals came to us. They took us home and nursed our wounds. That night the tribals believed that we would be with them at all cost.
One day, four bonded labourers hid from their masters and managed to reach our home in Mumbai. They came and said they wanted to be free. We were in a fix. What could we do? Where could we take them? We hit upon a plan to dramatise their freedom for them and told them that we would take them to a senior officer who would set them free. We phoned one of our friends who was a retired bureaucrat and told him what to do.
We brought the tribals to the apartment of our friend, which was on the eleventh floor. It was the first time the tribals were in an elevator. We ceremoniously presented them before our friend posing as an officer. He listened to their story and then said, "You are now free. You need not work for the master anymore. And you need not repay the loan."
The tribals were overjoyed. From that moment they believed and they knew that they were free. They returned to the village as heroes and they declared they would never work for the masters. The embers of freedom in their hearts had started to glow and nothing could extinguish them now.
We helped agricultural labourers and small farmers to organize themselves into a union called Shramajeevi Sanghatana. The union supported the bonded laborers in their struggle for freedom. The strength of this collective bargaining would change their lives.
Soon bonded labourers from village after village started coming to us asking to be set free. It was a sign that they were gaining confidence in the union. We began to use the law and the courts and also helped them to access the government's rehabilitation programmes. But the most important lesson we learned was that it was neither the laws nor the rehabilitation programs that had set them free. They were free because they thought they were free, and we created an atmosphere that made them think they were free.
We asked them: Do you want to be cattle tied to your master? The master will feed you twice like he feeds his cattle. Do you want to be cattle or do you want to be human beings? The tribals learned to value freedom. They readied themselves to demand it, and they prepared to pay the price. They prepared to go to jail. They prepared to go hungry. They prepared to get organized and support fellow bonded laborers to change the course of their history. They found hope in their organization. They learned to assert their rights as citizens of a democracy.
From then on we seized every opportunity to make manifest that freedom. I remember when the bonded labourers decided to salute the national flag for the first time, on Independence Day in 1983. The masters came armed with sticks and created such an uproar that the ceremony could not be held.
The indignity of that day stayed with us the entire year, which increased our determination. The next year, the masters prevailed upon the district administration to pass orders preventing us from saluting the flag. As we moved ahead towards the flag, the police stood in front in a cordon. Imagine not being allowed to salute the national flag, to be degraded and denied this simple act of citizenship! That day we broke the cordon, and for the first time the bonded labourers saluted the national flag.
We were arrested for that offence and went to jail. My wife went to the women's prison with our three-year-old-daughter. We remained in jail for ten days and refused to give bail, and finally the government had to withdraw the case. It was an incomparable victory.
The former slaves raised their first slogan against the masters:
"We bonded labourers are not cattle, we are human beings.
We don't want charity, we demand our rights."
This slogan gave them strength to declare that they preferred starvation to slavery, even death to slavery. Abraham Lincoln once said, "Freedom lies in the hearts of the people." Yes, it lies in the hearts of the slaves, although they be covered with the ashes of indignity and hopelessness heaped on them by masters and rulers.
Keeping our hearts courageous is not an easy task. When the masters in my uncle's village saw that freedom was taking hold they rose up to destroy it. They imposed a social boycott on the bonded labourers. This means they were not given work in the fields, the shopkeepers did not sell to them, and they were not allowed to enter the village.
The fear is of backlash by the master. The master is all-powerful. He has money. He knows the police. He knows the politicians. He has powerful friends. The master may even kill the labourer. Who will support the bonded labourer? Will not everyone support the master? Just as the hour before dawn is the darkest, the transition to freedom is the most difficult. Many of the worst fears may come true, and yet we have to help the bonded labourer hold on.
At that time a woman said, "We shall eat bitter roots but we shall not touch the feet of the masters." This was another slogan raised by the bonded labourers. When the slaves rise in protest, when they raise their heads high and look straight into the eyes of the master and say, I shall die but not bend before you, that is the moment of power. Once they say this, no power on earth can keep them in shackles.
Freedom is an expensive thing, but that does not mean that any currency in the world can buy it. Only the bonded labourers can pay the price. They alone must gather courage from the depths of their being and say 'no'.
Nothing else can set them free:
For them there is no alternative employment, because they are enslaved.
They do not have the leisure for adult education because they are starving.
Savings and credit schemes require money, which they do not have.
Buying them back from the master is disastrous, as it encourages the master to keep more slaves.
The only answer to bonded labour is organizing the slaves to demand the freedom that is already theirs by law.
Our task as organisers is to help the yearning of freedom bloom, like a bud. The bud is attacked from all sides by storms of violence, and by the worms of inner doubts gnawing inside. The fear of freedom is a very real fear. However inhuman the system, this is the life that the slave has been born into.
Let me tell you the story of Keshav Nankar. To me, Keshav is a symbol of the heights that the human spirit can achieve. As a boy he and his family fell into bondage for a small loan taken by his father. Keshav wanted to go to school but could not because his master wanted him to tend to the cattle instead. As a young man Keshav and his wife, who was also in bondage, worked more than 14 hours a day. He got only one break to eat, and was abused and kept hungry.
Twenty years ago, through our union, Shramjeevi Sanghatana, Keshav escaped from the horrors of bonded labour. Today he serves as chairperson of the union, which is now run by former bonded labourers. Its membership has risen to some 100,000. It has has helped more than 6000 slaves gain their freedom, and many thousands more have been freed by masters who were afraid of the union.
Who would have thought twenty years ago that Keshav would some day travel to London and tell his story to world leaders at the meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society? And there is no fear that Keshav's children will ever live in bondage.
I wish you could meet Anita Dhangda. She is the first bonded woman to be elected as a representative in a District government. Anita was born into a bonded family, and her father died young as a result of their hard lives. In 1989 Anita approached our union with the request to help free her family. We registered a formal complaint against the landlord. The landlord was powerful. He had the village under his control. He stopped all work and food to Anita and her family. We mobilized the surrounding villages, who confronted the landlord, and we succeeded. Anita and 22 of her family members gained their freedom.
Anita got involved in our union, and became interested in politics in Maharashtra state. Who could imagine that Anita Dhangda would fight against the candidate of the mafia politicians and get elected, this year, to the Zilla Parishad, which is the district-level unit of local self governance? No one could have imagined that the Chief Minister of Maharashtra would join the celebration in her honor. No one could have imagined she would appear in TV interviews and raise issues on the floor of the House. Her story is a credit to her and to the organizing that worked to free her.
There are no short cuts to freeing slaves. Each and every slave has to be protected and encouraged. There is no magic wand at the single wave of which all will be free. The only way is to be with each person and support him or her in the long walk to freedom.
While the bonded labourer pays the price of freedom, we can share the path and sometimes the cost. Those of us who chose to pay that price have spent days in jail, have gone hungry and thirsty. The police bring charges against us. But we know that compared to the pain of the bonded labourer, our pain is small.
Along the way we have found people who will stand with the bonded labourers in their fight. At the height of struggle we have been supported by lawyers, doctors, intellectuals, media persons, government officials and students. Among those people there were also those who belonged to the families or castes of the masters, who invited the anger of their own community to be with the bonded labourers in their struggle.
Our union is also a bridge that connects the struggle of the tribal bonded labourers in India to the struggle of communities and nations across the globe. During apartheid the members of Shramajeevi Sanghatana collected one rupee each and handed over twelve thousand rupees to the ANC. It was not the money that counted, but the spirit of solidarity, which says “ We are with you in your struggle. We understand how hard it is for you because it is so hard for us.” And which says, “no one is free till every one is free.” Hundreds of our people danced with joy at the news of Nelson Mandela's release from South Africa's jail as if their own brother were released. The spirit of freedom knows no geographical boundaries, no race or country. We are one with Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, who have become our heroes along with the heroes of the Indian Freedom Struggle.
Thus, Friends, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Unitarian Universalist Association for your support for our struggle against slavery. Through the Holdeen India Program you have been associated with us for nearly two decades. Although the Holdeen India Programme supported the movement against bonded labour financially, the real contribution cannot ever be measured in money.
For two decades Ms. Kathy Sreedhar has been with us marching and working with us constantly. We have the knowledge that through her you all are with us.
Some of you have visited us; some of you know the former bonded labourers by name. This is most important, for the first thing a master takes away is a person's name. You are with us in our struggle. You have celebrated our victories with us. We have sung together the English and Marathi versions of "We Shall Overcome." You have brought many, many friends from many countries and cultures and introduced the freed bonded labourers to them as you would a member of your family.
By doing all these things you restored to the bonded labourers what the masters, and generations of enslavement had taken away – recognition of their inherent worth and dignity as human beings. You are far more precious to us than all the money in the world.
You and we together share a vision of the world where there will be no slavery or bondage. The work towards that vision is our service to God. God resides neither in temples, nor mosques, nor churches, nor synagogues but in freeing of the oppressed human being. To work for freeing slaves is our worship of the living God.
I tried to capture in the words of a song the dream that all of us share, and I would like to end my speech with the translation of that song.
This is the dream of my life
May it come true
May the children of human beings
Live with human dignity
May no one sell their bodies
For a small piece of bread
And may my inner urge ever be
To destroy oppression.
May the flowers yet to bloom
Not be trampled underfoot
May every breath I take
Help new flowers to bloom.
May I never be weak, vulnerable
May I find within myself
The strength to contain storms.
The night that has passed
Was the darkest
Let the emerging rays
Live in the huts of the poor.
May those who have no food
And no dignity, be my Gods.
And may every step I take today
Be in the service of that God.
This is my prayer
May it come true
May the children of human beings
Live with human dignity.
Usgaon Hill, Bhatane, Taluka-Vasai Dist.Thane, Maharashtra 401 303 India
vsansad [at] bom3 [dot] vsnl [dot] net [dot] in, p_viva [at] yahoo [dot] com
There Are 27 Million Slaves: Where Are the Abolitionists?
By Charles Jacobs, President, American Anti-Slavery Group
View the slideshow (PDF, 18 pages) that accompanies this speech.
American abolitionists in the 1800’s often began their talks with an apology. They felt bad, bringing dark and sad reports to sunny American people.
And I too apologize for coming with the news that slavery is not history. Indeed it is flourishing. There may be more slaves today than in any time in human history. 27 million by conservative estimate. There are about as many slaves in the world today as there are Canadians.
People think human bondage is a thing of the past. And if that is what you thought, then you may be shaken today, because we have not only picture-slides, but a former slave.
We came to tell you, Francis Bok and I, of slavery—and abolitionism—in this, our millennium.
And we’ve come also to challenge you …
You see, Slavery is the stepchild of the human rights movement.
The American Anti-Slavery Group is a little band of Boston abolitionists that has been fighting against slavery for 11 years. Mostly, the “civilized world” sits by. No major human rights organization has placed on its mandate the freeing of today’s slaves. Our support has come from the grass roots.
In our experience, three groups have been our biggest supporters. We jocularly refer to this abolitionist trio as “Blacks, Jews and UU’s [Unitarian Universalists].”
Blacks respond when they see blacks today enslaved. They know their history. Jews became a people at a moment of Divine Abolitionism in Egypt. We know about Pharaohs. The UU’s? You are an abolitionist church.
[SLIDE OF THEODORE PARKER]
Your roots are in the fight to free slaves here.
And you are the sons and daughters of some of the great American abolitionists.
Your Theodore Parker was driven to fight the evil of slavery. He not only preached against human bondage, and was vilified for it, he was an activist, and defended fugitive slaves against slave catchers.
Do you know the story of what Reverend Parker did when the Southern slave-catchers came to Boston? He took a group of Universalist men to the hotel where the slave-catchers were staying. And he surrounded them, jostled them, intimidated them, told them they had better, for their own safety, go back home and leave these slaves free. And they looked into Parker’s eyes and at the Universalists with him AND -/THEY/- WENT/- BACK/-HOME!
I like that story.
Francis and I are glad to be among you!
As we sit here in freedom, there are, by conservative estimate, 27 million slaves around the globe. I do not mean people with hard jobs, low pay and nasty bosses. I mean people who are forced to work for no pay under the threat of violence. Slaves!
Hidden at the underbelly or our thriving global markets, contributing to our general wealth and well-being, there are slaves.
From Calcutta to Khartoum, from Brazil to Bangladesh, there are slaves. And there are even slaves in the United States. According to the CIA, there are 50,000 people brought to our shores each year who become slave labor. Not exploited, underpaid workers—that’s bad enough—but I mean slaves, people who cannot quit their work.
You may know some about modern day slavery: there is much, likely, you do not know.
[Slide: CARPET WEAVING CHILDREN]
You probably know about the rug weaving child slaves of Pakistan, India and Nepal who make the oriental carpets we have in our living rooms.
These children are shackled to the looms, from dawn to dusk, from toddlerhood to adolescence. They work with sharp knives. If they cut their fingers and bleed on the carpets, the master cauterizes the wound, to save the carpet from stain. He does this with a burning match. The “civilized” world sits by.
You may not know of the Trokosi slaves in Ghana. How many ever heard of the Trokosi slaves? In rural areas in Ghana, fathers wishing to expiate their sins—to cleanse themselves spiritually—give their virgin daughters to the village shaman, priest, as sex slaves. These poor girls live at the shrine with the shaman and other women for much of their whole lives. This is hard to talk about. Remember that I said that.
You may know of the sex trafficked little girls—and boys—in India and Asia. Bought, sold, and used. By the tens of thousands, as the world sits by.
Here is a hidden camera photo of a brothel in India. Girls are forced to service up to 20 men a night. Many contract fatal disease. Slavers seek out younger and younger girls to guard customers against AIDS. People who try to rehabilitate these girls say they are more difficult to reach than children who are victims of war. The world sits by.
You likely did not know that the high rate of sex slavery in some Asian countries is linked to versions of Bhuddism which give women an almost less than human status. Women are identified with pleasure, and physical pleasure is to be despised, and so, women too. This is hard to talk about. Culture and religion are hard to talk about. So people don’t. Remember that I said that.
[Slide: (Camel racing kid)]
The world sits by as little boys from Bangladesh, coveted for their light weight are trafficked to the Persian Gulf to become camel jockeys.
[Slide: (Another Camel racing kid)]
Camel racing is a national pastime in the Gulf states. A man on our Board, Abdul Momen, didn’t sit by. He has saved dozens of children from this fate. He will be speaking this fall across the US.
How did these people become slaves?
I can’t give here the entire typology. But in brief: Today’s slaves might be born into debt bondage, as inheritors of a debt that long-deceased relatives incurred—and is passed down through the generations—and will likely never be retired.
Or they might have been knowingly sold by a parent who needed food for the rest of the family, or yes, who wanted a color TV, a motor bike, or drugs. THIS IS HARD TO TALK ABOUT. POOR PEOPLE DOING BAD THINGS. VERY HARD. SO WE DON’T.
Or they might be lured with the promise of a job or a better life.
Look at what happens.
[SLIDE: to girls in India. They are making matches.]
It is a stunning irony: modernism and globalization help and hurt at the same time:
Western medicine lowers infant mortality rates. Now maybe all 8 of a woman’s children survive and she can’t feed them.
So, in Bangladesh, men come to the village and promise an overburdened mother to take one of her sons to the Persian Gulf to do construction work—and send back money to feed the others. And she sends him. And sometimes, it is legitimate—and sometimes the boy is sold as a camel jockey slave.
And modernism created the internet which bridges worlds, and so a working class European or Japanese man can buy a village girl from Asia for his pleasure. This is the darkest side of globalization.
But chattel slavery is the worst case and until we came along, the most ignored. In chattel slavery, one person is the wholly owned property of another for life, inheritable from his estate.
For this you have to go where we went: to North Africa, to Sudan and Mauritania…
Here slave children belong to the masters, and the slaves are bred like farm animals.
[Slide: Mauritania: girl slaves]
[Slide Mauritania: girl washes her master’s hands.]
In Mauritania, as across all North Africa, black African villages were historically raided for slaves by Arabs to the north. We in the West study how blacks were taken across the seas to work in the Americas. We don’t have in our minds that as least as many were taken across the desserts to work in Arabia. And they still are. AND THAT IS HARD TO TALK ABOUT.
Starting 600 years ago, slaves were taken, converted to Islam, and made into a slave caste, the haratin. Even though it is not permitted in Islam to enslave another Muslim, racism trumps religion. Just like it did in the West.
So there are hundreds of thousands of Black Muslim slaves in Mauritania, who may not marry without their masters’ permission, who may not touch the Koran with their slave hands, who may not go to mosque to pray. And who are taught that the way to Heaven is under their master’s foot. And tragically this has mentally enslaved most of them, for they believe it. That G-d wants them to be slaves. THAT IS HARD TO TALK ABOUT.
If you EVER wanted to understand the idea of “cultural relativism” really, answer for yourself the question I got at Tufts University last year: “Well, Dr. Jacobs, if they believe they should be slaves, who are we to tell them different.?”
A great test question for anyone’s philosophy class—or kitchen table. Is anything “Universal” anymore? Is everything relative???
Hold that thought, while I introduce you to a hero who has strong opinions on this matter.
[Slide Mauritania: Yessa]
Abdel Yessa was born into a slave-holding family and turned himself into a sort of Muslim Theodore Parker. His story is wondrous. You can read about it on our website. He now helps to free slaves. It is very dangerous. He is on our board. He is coming to the United States this fall.
In Sudan, the slave trade has been rekindled by a religious war. In 1989, a Taliban-like regime took power and declared a Jihad, to impose Koranic Law on all Sudanese. The South, mostly Christian and believers in tribal faiths, resisted.
Here is a brief NBC Dateline clip on Sudan that says it all.
No, we can’t count on the UN. Libya, which imports Sudanese slaves, has just been named to head the UN’s HR Commission. HARD TO TALK ABOUT.
UNICEF, to appease Khartoum, has taken to referring to the slaves as “abductees.” Who wants to take on UNICEF? Hard to talk about that. And the Arab League, with many votes at the UN declared a fatwa on those who claim there is slavery in Sudan. VERY HARD TO TALK ABOUT.
[SLIDE: Line of slaves being redeemed.]
So not being able to count on the international community, we took the matter into our own hands. In a way, we went to the slave-catcher’s hotel. We joined an indigenous African-Arab effort, part of a local peace treaty—to redeem slaves for cash. This caused a storm of controversy, which we can address in the question period.
I am going to show you some of what happens to people in slavery if you DON’T liberate them, if you wait for the peace processes to work….. like some in the establishment say we should have done.
The boys they take don’t usually survive to manhood. Muscular men can cause trouble. Adolescents often have their throats cut.
And even before that…..
I am going to show you 3 rather gruesome slides.
[SLIDE: FINGER cut off for losing master’s goat]
[SLIDE: ARM cut off trying to escape]
[SLIDE: FACE: nose hacked off.]
[SLIDE: FRANCIS BOK, BOOK COVER]
Francis Bok is a miracle. By all accounts he should have been dead.
Francis is a modern day Frederick Douglass. He escaped from slavery and uses his freedom to help free his people. This is not without risk. They are those who do not wish you to hear his story and these are not peaceful men. It is my honor to introduce to you Francis Bok
Thank you Francis. Francis will be at our table tomorrow from ______________. I will be at our table after this and on Sunday, noon to three.
I have to say some hard truths.
Where is the power to set the slaves free?
Slavery is the stepchild of the human rights community. The liberation of today’s slaves is not the burning concern of any powerful human rights group. Not Amnesty International. Not Human Rights Watch, not UNICEF.
Most slaves today are women, yet there is no outcry from the major woman’s groups to liberate slaves in Africa or Asia. (Though there is a developing focus on European trafficking.)
In 1994, I asked for and received pounds of reports from what I now call the Human Rights Establishment. So they always knew.
Why don’t they act? It’s a problem. Why are only a few of us working on this fundamental problem?
I’ve published a theory of “human rights selectivity” in the Boston Globe and it became a focus of controversy. I called it “the human rights complex.” It is deeply disturbing to some people. I almost decided not to say it to you today. Easier not to.
But: Quote: “Truth stood on one side, Ease on the other; it has often been so.” Theodore Parker
Friends, if you want to know what the human rights community and the media will attend to, do not look at the identity of the victim. Look instead at the identity of the oppressor.
Why don’t we fight to liberate the slaves of Sudan? Do we not care about blacks? Of course we do. The human rights community fought tooth and nail against apartheid. So why is freedom in Johannesburg more compelling than in Khartoum?
The human rights community consists mostly of compassionate white people. When such folks, and I include myself, see evil done by people like ourselves, we feel especially animated to act. “Not in my name!” is the slogan for that feeling. We are embarrassed to be identified with evil. We want to clear our name. This part of the human rights impulse is all about expiation.
That is not bad—as a starting place. But we seem stuck in this posture.
It is easy to understand: We in the West feel bad about our history of colonialism and slaving. We have done harm. And so we do not like to criticize other cultures—even when they devalue women, even when they devalue life because they live for the next life, even when they devalue their own daughters, even when they sell their children for drugs and televisions, even when they devalue infidels. And so we avert our eyes. It is hard to talk about.
When we see evil done by people NOT like ourselves, we are paralyzed. We think we don’t have a moral standing to criticize “them.” We fear the charge of hypocrisy: We Westerners after all, had slaves. We napalmed Viet-nam. We live on Native American land. Who are we to judge “others?” And so we don’t stand for all of humanity. Though we say we subscribe to the principle of universal standards of human rights, we don’t act on that principle.
We are not really Universalists.
The victims of this “human rights complex” are many, every group that has the very bad luck of having non Western oppressors. The black Muslim slaves of Mauritania, the Kurds, the Berbers, the Christians of Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, the Tibetans, the Trokosi slaves of Ghana. And more. Most slaves in this world are enslaved by non-Westerners, so if we want to get serious about helping them, we had better face up to our “complexes.”
Yes, we owned slaves. Yes we exploited people. But are we to stay our hand because we can never be pure? If so, we consign the slaves to their bondage. If expiation is our game, the freeing of black slaves from Arabs or Asian slaves from Asians, is besides the point.
Seeking expiation instead of universal justice means ignoring the suffering of victims of non-Western aggression. But it ALSO means devaluing their oppressors. Parker wrote a letter to a slaver. A respectful letter. He told him that slavery damaged HIS soul. Parker cared for the soul of EVERY person created by G-d, every victim, every victimizer. My work over these years convinces me that we have come to a place where we do not.
Universalism can only have one meaning: that every man, woman and child on this Earth is fashioned in the image of G-d, Btzelem Ha-Shem in the Hebrew, and we are required, as it says in the Bible, not to stand by his blood.
The human rights complex takes us away from universalism. It confines us in a bourgeiose corner of self concern. It averts our eyes from the face of the victims, it focuses our stare instead only at our own heart. Just a few inches, mind you, from our bellybuttons.
It is as though we stand forever accused… of capitalist greed, of colonialism, of racism. If being caught in those headlights is the only posture we have, then we will be blind to so many we could be helping. Yes, we were colonialists and there were Americans who owned slaves, but only we also, through the values that drove people like Theodore Parker, has there been an abolitionist movement. It happened only in the West. Shall we stay our hands because they were not, and will never be, pure?
I believe seeking expiation instead of universal justice is a sin. It is moral selfishness, the other side of material greed.
Abolitionists today MUST be UNIVERSALISTS. When we are, look what we can do:
- We helped to free tens of thousands of slaves in Sudan.
- We pressed President Bush to start a peace process in Sudan—and you know what? The ceasefire in some parts is holding and some slaves are being let go free.
- We are helping educate slaves in captivity in Mauritania.
- We helped get the Congress to pass a bill that allows slaves who are in America illegally some relief, NOT to be immediately deported so they can find a way out of their plight.
- We led a divestment campaign against Canada’s largest oil company—Talisman—for doing business with the slavers in Sudan. A lawyer on our Board heads up an international lawsuit against them.
- We educate tens of thousands of school children through our web-based curriculum on modern day slavery.
- We got the May Company out of Burma.
- We built the broadest political movement imaginable—we have Pat Robertson and Barney Frank as friends. We don’t put them in the same room. And the CBC and white evangelicals, and UUs and Jews and Muslims.
- We provide platforms for Christian and Muslim slaves and abolitionist heros.
- We broke the media silence on modern day human bondage.
And so we ask you today, Francis and I, to think of your roots and come help us free the slaves. When you make that decision, you can say, along with Harriet Tubman, the great black abolitionist:
I have seen their tears and I have heard their cries and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.!!
Charles Jacobs, President