Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Taking Slavery Seriously

Stephen Lazarus


February 1, 1999

The African slave trade is alive and kicking, according to a recent letter sent to South African President Nelson Mandela. It read: "I write to you today on behalf of 30 young Africans who were ripped from their families, chained, shackled, and unjustly imprisoned. They have been starved, beaten, and deprived of water and sleep—all in an attempt to break their spirits—so they might be sold into servitude." The letter, signed by American comedian Richard Pryor, was reprinted as an ad in The Washington Post. Who were these African slaves?—baby elephants from Botswana, the focus of a new fundraising campaign by the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Animals deserve decent treatment, of course. What is grotesque about this publicity stunt is that it trivializes the thousands of cases of actual human slavery documented today in Africa in the Sudan.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees has recently confirmed accounts that as part of a 15 year-old civil war, Sudanese militias have routinely abducted and enslaved civilians, mostly women and children, as part of a policy of genocide directed against ethnic and religious minorities in central and southern Sudan. This modern-day slave trade has flourished since the Islamic government declared a jihad in 1992 against groups such as the predominantly Christian Dinka tribe in the Nuba mountains. Thousands of Sudanese have been enslaved while fleeing the governments repeated bombing raids on their villages. Some villagers (including young children) are sold in open-air markets. Others are held in slave labor camps where people from the North and nearby countries buy them in exchange for camels and other goods.

Reports describe horrible human rights abuses: forced religious conversions, man-made famines, branding, torture, rape, murder, and even crucifixion. According to Freedom House, more villagers in the southern Sudan have been murdered than the total number of victims of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda combined. More than 1.9 million have died since 1983.

What should the U.S. do? Surely the first step is to take the existence of human slavery seriously, and not use it as a fundraising tool. A range of foreign policy options exists beyond the false choice of either doing nothing or sending in the Marines. The U.S. in cooperation with other countries could increase international pressure on Sudan to guarantee that human rights monitors have unhindered access to all sites where atrocities have been reported. Second, the U.S. could urge the U.N. to declare Sudan an "humanitarian autonomous zone" to ensure that the government no longer hinders the delivery of relief supplies to the hardest-hit areas. As we did against apartheid in South Africa, we could establish economic sanctions against Sudan. However, we have already broken many of our economic ties to Sudan because it sponsors international terrorism.

Finally, as a more immediate response to the crisis, the U.S. could enforce a no-fly zone over the Nuba mountain region and the southern Sudan to prevent the governments bombing raids on civilian villages which have devastated and displaced over 80 percent of the population.

Any or all of these actions would begin to address these unspeakable abuses which have remained off the radar screens of the worlds most powerful countries for far too long. America's foreign policy with regard to Sudan must be motivated by more than a concern for narrow national interests. As a member of a global community of nations, our government must fulfill its obligation to uphold human rights and promote justice both at home and abroad. This type of foreign policy doesnt turn away. It is bound by principle to take slavery—and genocide—seriously.

—Stephen Lazarus, Research Associate
   Center for Publc Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”