Saturday, July 11, 2009

Obama's Visit to Former Slave Outpost in Ghana and Old and New Slavery

Today, U.S. President Barack Obama made a side trip during an official visit to Ghana to see a former outpost of the Atlantic Slave Trade, where millions of Africans were sent to become slaves all over the world, including the U.S. Most of the media commentary related to his visit talks about the emotional pull that touring such a place has for the person visiting; this piece by Komla Dumor from the BBC I particularly feel is very well written.

Cape Coast, Ghana

Before heading to the Cape Coast to see the physical remnants of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Obama mentioned human trafficking during his official speech in Accra; more than once, actually:

Picture from Amnesty International

It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many...

Time and again, Ghanaians have chosen Constitutional rule over autocracy, and shown a democratic spirit that allows the energy of your people to break through. We see that in leaders who accept defeat graciously, and victors who resist calls to wield power against the opposition. We see that spirit in courageous journalists like Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who risked his life to report the truth. We see it in police like Patience Quaye, who helped prosecute the first human trafficker in Ghana. We see it in the young people who are speaking up against patronage and participating in the political process...

That is why we must stand up to inhumanity in our midst. It is never justifiable to target innocents in the name of ideology. It is the death sentence of a society to force children to kill in wars. It is the ultimate mark of criminality and cowardice to condemn women to relentless and systematic rape. We must bear witness to the value of every child in Darfur and the dignity of every woman in Congo. No faith or culture should condone the outrages against them. All of us must strive for the peace and security necessary for progress.

In the course of the trainings we conduct on behalf of the International Institute of Buffalo, in order to talk about the development of modern anti-trafficking laws, we explain that the conditions of trafficking existed prior to 2000 in the U.S., we just didn't have a name for it [i.e. a federal law that gave it a name]. Inevitably at the end, one participant will mention, "Well, we did have a name for this before the federal law, didn't we? I mean, isn't this slavery?"

True. Human trafficking is a modern-day slavery. Ron Soodalter and Kevin Bales devote some of their first pages in The Slave Next Door to talk about the old and new forms of slavery:

Picture from

Most Americans' idea of slavery comes right of Roots - the chains, the whip in the overseer's hand, the crack of the auctioneer's gavel. That was one form of bondage. The slavery plaguing America today takes a different form, but make no mistake, it is real slavery. Where the law sanctioned slavery in the 1800s, today it's illegal. Where antebellum masters took pride in the ownership of slaves as a sign of status, today's human traffickers and slaveholders keep slaves hidden, making it all the more difficult to locate victims and punish offenders. Where the slaves in America were once primarily African and African American, today we have "equal opportunity" slavery; modern-day slaves come in all races, all types, and all ethnicities. We are, if anything, totally democratic when it comes to owning and abusing our fellow human beings. All that's required is the chance of a profit and a person weak enough and vulnerable enough to enslave.

This is capitalism at its worst, and it is supported by a dramatic alteration in the basic economic question of slavery. Where an average slave in 1850 would have cost the equivalent of $40,000 in modern money, today's slave can be bought for a few hundred dollars. This cheapness makes the modern slave easily affordable, but it also makes him or her a disposable commodity. For a slaveholder it's often cheaper to let a slave die than it is to keep the slave alive. There is no form of slavery, past or present, that isn't horrific; however, today's slavery is one of the most diabolical strains to emerge in the thousands of years in which human have been enslaving their fellows.

So, again, yes, human trafficking is a modern form of slavery, and some victims today suffer from the same humiliation and physical violence used in historical slavery: degrading physical inspection and bargaining for their sale, kidnapping, chains, back-breaking field and housework, among many others. However our historical understanding of slavery should not hinder our ability to understand its modern form: just because we don't see physical chains or public auctions does not mean we should assume that when someone is being exploited for labor or sexual purposes that it is not slavery or trafficking, as it is now known.

I hope that I will be able to make the trip to Cape Coast Castle at some point in the near future because I believe the trip would be a powerful reminder that so many of our modern human rights problems, including trafficking, have their roots in historical human rights abuses. However, the modern form of slavery needs a modern response: simply declaring it illegal isn't enough. Ensuring that our fellow human beings aren't victimized by traffickers will take an educated public and collaboration among government, non-government, international and law enforcement agencies alike to address root causes and consequences. It will also take a persistence that defies any notion that just because a problem has thousands of years of history, it is impossible to overcome.


  1. But corruption in Africa is largely a legacy of colonialism that left in place murderous regimes to act as intermediaries in exploiting African resources. Weaponry, large and small, has poured into Africa from its old colonial masters, as well as its new ones. Obama may be sincere about fighting human trafficking, but the conditions that make trafficking profitable have a lot to do with the conduct of transnational corporations backed by the US and EU.

  2. The push factors behind trafficking from developing countries is far more complicated than what was listed in the post. And combatting trafficking and raising standards of living will take a lot more than eloquent rhetoric. If you read the speech as a whole, there is much more nuance than what is listed here. I had to take the paragraphs out of context in order to highlight the parts that dealt specifically with trafficking. But there is no disagreement here that there is plenty of responsibilty to be taken for the factors that drive people to take risks to improve their lives and end up being exploited by traffickers.