Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Ending the Slave Trade

A large part of my scholarly work is examining the role of norms in International Relations. Norms are the social rules which tell you (or your country) how to behave and view the world. Some of these are unwritten, like saying please, thank you, or shaking hands. Others are written down, such as recognizing others private property. At an international level, Norms drive countries to respect each others sovereignty, to be concerned about environmental destruction or to not have slaves. Well, that is the case in most places, but not all

A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania. Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.

And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.

That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.

Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.

Sadly for the hopes of people everywhere, the election has declared the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the ex-military and 2008 coup leader as the victor with 52% of the vote. His challengers including Messaoud Boulkheir have called the result an ‘electoral masquerade’, though western diplomats at the scene seem content with the process.
Slave_Mauritana
Mauritania is a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, but which has remained mired in poverty, military challenges for power (most recently in 2008), and large area’s of the country where life has remained almost unchanged in centuries (outside better guns, clothes and phones). Yet it presents a stark reminder to the world that whilst the British pushed to end the slave trade in 1815, and the US came into line with the Civil War in 1865, almost 150 years later, some places in the world still have not come to accept these ideas. Whilst I, and most of humanity see this as an obvious stark moral issue, norms like slavery are better understood in practice as a contest of persuasion, influence and coercion. What is most significant is not that in “this modern world” that slavery exists, but that having had a dominant idea in place around the world for so long, it has not quite managed to drive out competing norms. Take this taxi driver from the capital Nouakchott:

A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.
“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”

Moral outrage in such cases is a necessary motivator, but it also blinds us to seeing what is needed to stop the practice. Better ideas, like the economically productive potential of free human beings, and free societies are stronger weapons for the non-slave trading countries than condemning ‘backward’ sins. This also needs to be coupled with financial and national incentives to lead the elites to recognize their own potential to benefit.

The Information Revolution has clearly not prevented war or genocide or even given the public that much more of a say in the way their countries conduct international affairs. But it does offer the potential for norms to flow significantly faster and more deeply into countries around the world. This is often poo-poo’ed when it means everyone starts drinking coke and talking with an American accent, but it also means that the battle of ideas is radically shaken up in ways that have never before been possible. If the world is to make good on any of the high language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it is 61 years since it was signed), then we need to make causes such as eradicating slavery a true objective. Whilst some issues such as conflict, and violence in conflict are difficult to learn about when occurring, much less deal with, long term human rights violations such as slavery are one’s we can track, monitor and deal with much more strongly due to the new information at our finger-tips. If the Information Revolution is to mean anything to human rights (and it’s not clear that it does) then I’d like to predict that Slavery will be its first great victory. That day is still some time off with an estimated 20 million bonded labour slaves around the world. Of a similar note (though more talked about in SE Asia) is human trafficking which may entrap from 2.5 to 5 million people around the world.

This issue is obviously one that touches the US President Barack Obama closely, given his own status as first African-American President, and his wife’s history with a great, great grandfather who was a bonded slave in southern America. Obama raised the issue on his recent trip to Africa, and his wife and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also held events this year to help address the issue. Yet this is as I said at the beginning a battle of ideas and influence, not one that can be condemned nor bombed out of sight. Obama has too many challenges, and his skin-colour does not automatically give him a gilded tongue for every important cause. But where other challenges of stopping war or genocide or exploitation may well be beyond us, stopping slavery is something that is surely possible within the next 100 years. We can finally peer down and track where and how many are in chains, it is then up to us to convince and coerce those in charge to finally let them be free. Morality may energize us, but it is winning the battle of ideas about the best types of behaviour and action, by both individuals and countries that will achieve it for us. We must not relent.

Next post »

One ResponseLeave one →

  1. MC

     /  July 27, 2009

    Im not sure it was better ideas alone that stopped the slave trade. Sanctions, including the threat of violence against slavers surely played a significant role in ending slavery as an acceptible way of life was a significant factor in the end of the trade.

    It would seem that unless Mauritania faces sanctions of some kind, there is not much incentive to end the practice of slavery.