Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Editor's Introduction- April 2008

“A World Enslaved" by E. Benjamin Skinner. Foreign Policy (March/April) 2008.

An Annotation

Touted as the first international human rights movement, the abolition of African slavery was a monumental paradigm shift in redefining who is a human being and how human beings as such should and should not be treated. However, we have recently seen a re-emergence of this phenomenon. As yet another repulsive outgrowth of globalization, modern slavery and the human trafficking channels that feed slaveholding necessitate another shift in the way we understand slavery so as to confront this old problem in new ways.

“Most people imagine that slavery died in the 19 th century. Since 1817, more than a dozen international conventions have been signed banning the slave trade. Yet, today there are more slaves than at any time in human history.”

How did this “solved” problem resurface? Why is it that the international norm against holding human beings as property weakened or collapsed? One response to these questions proposes, as Alison Brysk does in this month’s HRHW Roundtable, that the original abolition movement targeted states and state-sanctioned actors, while this new manifestation is an accumulation of “private wrongs” perpetrated beneath and beyond the state itself. Or, as Christine Bell suggests in her response, human rights is not about solving problems per se; rather, human rights advocates must be proactively and morally vigilant in their pursuit of emancipation lest the abuse return in a more dynamic form. Like a drug-resistant virus, slavery has made its way through the cracks in legal and political structures, and has survived its previous abolition in order to thrive through economic arteries.

“But, until governments define slavery in appropriately concise terms, prosecute the crimes aggressively in all its forms, and encourage groups that empower slaves to free themselves, millions more will remain in bondage. And our collective promise of abolition will continue to mean nothing at all.”

As slavery itself has changed, so its opponents must also change. Modern slavery exists in many forms, masked by various types of façade. The trade and ownership of sex workers and debt laborers are two notorious forms of modern slavery and, along with the multitude of others, will demand novel approaches to abolition. As Anna Aganthangelou remarks for the Roundtable, it is best to understand modern slavery as another incarnation of its predecessor, as imperialism over the body, an understanding that would beg a specific response supporting market regulation as well as advocating for individual self-determination. Or, as Eric Heinze suggests in his contribution, slavery should be categorized along with other human rights abuses that compete for prioritization among an array of foreign policy objectives. In any event, it is clear that the type of “on-the-ground” research that Skinner presents in this article (and in his book from which this is an excerpt, A Crime So Monstrous) is necessary for fruitful analysis and unyielding activism.

All this and more in this month’s installment of HRHW’s Roundtable.


Forget Me Not: Bodies as Last Colonies of Capitalism?

by Anna M. Agathangelou

“In an imperialist capitalist context that demands...the commodification of people’s labor and bodies, we need to raise questions about the logics of capital and the intensification of slavery within it.”

Slavery is one technology of imperialism that serves to generate more profits worldwide. Skinner brings this issue to our attention, arguing that many people think that slavery ended in the 19 th century, but the current turning of peoples into slaves proves otherwise. Skinner points out that since 1817, there have been more than a dozen international conventions signed banning the slave trade and yet, the number of people sold as slaves is in the millions. He calls modern day slavery a “monstrous crime” and proceeds to provide us with insights from his research. He begins making his point through what is supposed to be a “fictional” story about the negotiation to sell a child in Haiti into slavery for fifty dollars. He later reveals that the story is not fictional but was recorded during his four-year research into slavery on five continents.

Skinner’s piece is timely as it highlights a phenomenon that violates the integrity of children, women, and the poor in the world today. The market has turned everything and everybody into a commodity for sale which brings to the fore again the question of “human rights” violations and political violence within the global context. As Skinner argues, it is important to bring “freedom to millions” by “tearing out the roots of slavery” and yet, at the same time his analysis of the United Nations’ inability to “hold its member states accountable for widespread slavery” “pushes” him to conclude that “absent an effective international body like the United Nations, such an effort will require pressure from the United States.” This position, while crucial, remains within the realm of the liberal pragmatic tradition where the human rights of individuals (which is turning them into slaves) would be less likely to be abused if the right to defend them was constitutively incorporated in the foreign policies of hegemonic states like the United States. However, such a pragmatic position makes invisible several issues: (1) the structural/institutional arrangements within which this “slavery” becomes a possibility; (2) who buys who and for what purpose; and (3) whether the capitalist logic of paying a laborer “$1-an-hour” is not the same logic that guides what Skinner calls chattel slavery.

In addition, and perhaps in a way that gleans a post-colonial sensibility to Skinner’s analysis, I would like to suggest that contrary to his position that “freeing slaves is impossible unless the slaves themselves choose to be free” (Skinner). I would like to argue that peoples in Haiti and other sites that engage in modern day slavery have contributed, and are continuing to contribute, to the articulation and practices of self-actualization and the development and disruption of conditions that enable their exploitation, oppression, and perpetuation of human rights’ violations. Let’s not forget that Haiti was where one of the major revolutions took place against slavery, and also against the capitalist world formation. In an imperialist capitalist context that demands more and more the corporatization of social relations, including the commodification of people’s labor and bodies, we need to raise questions about the logics of capital and the intensification of slavery within it. Why is it crucial at this moment for capital to draw extensively on bodies (and mostly, bodies of color) to reproduce itself and to legitimize a (neo)liberal political power and authority? Why is it that the (re)production of capitalist social relations of power depend on the “intensification” of the private appropriation of the use-value and surplus labor of those who own nothing but their labor to sell?

Even when slavery was legally abolished, the (re)production of the structure of capital required in different “forms” such as cheap wages, women’s “free” labor at home, etc. The capitalist structure always depended on those bodies and those “unfree” subjects. It is my contention here and elsewhere (e.g., 2004) that the production of a “free wager” depends on the creation of the “unfree” and reproductive subject (i.e., domestic workers, sex workers, wives, etc.) to secure profits even if it means re-introducing a new form of slavery. Being “equal” and “free” in the market to pursue one’s choice of labor does not account for the fact that these “democratic” market rules are constantly suspended, especially when the imperative of the market, that is the generation of profits, is not happening at the rate that the decision makers and organizers of it think it should be.

This brings me to my next point: many states, including many organizations in the Global South and the Global North struggling to put slavery and trafficking on the political agenda, have been struck down by the priorities of foreign policies which have redirected many of their resources to consolidate a Global state and a Global military-industrial complex to secure the demands made by capital to restructure their economies; this has had serious implications upon peoples’ lives, land, and capacities to seek alternatives, including their ability to earn a basic living in their sites of birth and/or countries of origin. As many states redirect their resources from the social welfare of their people to the welfare of corporations, taking care of the majority of peoples and especially women and children is pushed to the margins. Simultaneously, the state pushes to contain social struggles and movements by funding non-profit organizations which, in the process of trying to secure funding, end up stripping down complex social struggles into digestible, rationalized ‘‘issue areas.’’ This is significant insofar as ostensibly non-state ‘‘civil society’’ becomes and is presented now as a primary site of social struggle (as if it is were not before such a site). However, subservient to the market itself, NGOs and civil society are placed in a position to concede to market logics which push more and more to understand social problems (i.e., lack of social welfare; investment in militarization of the state; gender and racial inequalities, indeed, turning the bodies of peoples into slave conditions) as ‘‘individual problems with market solutions’’ (Brown 2006, 704) in order to procure funding. These logics, including Skinner’s, silence nuances of power and, more pertinently, cordon off racial and sexual contradictions from the domain of both the state, the market, and the other institutions of power such as the family where women, children, and the poor of the world find themselves turning into “slaves” serving the desires, wills, and demands of upper and middle class families worldwide (See Agathangelou and Spira 2006). So, change begins with changing this asymmetrical socio-economic and power relation. But the mere desire of the “slaves” will not enable the disruption of the “crime” that Skinner talks about.

The countries and peoples Skinner engages as sites of slavery and trafficking are the same post-colonial nations that many of their resources, including their labor has been expropriated and exploited consistently even after their colonizers left their countries. It is not mere coincidence that now these countries are selling their people to sustain their power in world politics. Yet, it is crucial that we do not forget that these same countries and these “slaves” are the ones who fought revolutions against legalized slavery and articulated socio-political imaginaries as standards by which to measure social acts and political relations. These same people articulated and designed “ethical precepts” and continue to do so with the purpose of bettering the conditions and human rights of people and collectives everywhere.

Anna M. Agathangelou is Associate Professor of political science at York University, Toronto and the director of Global Change Institute, Nicosia, Cyprus. Author of The Global Political Economy of Sex: Desire, Violence, and Insecurity in Mediterranean Nation-States (Palgrave 2004), Agathangelou is currently working on a book-project Terror-Necrotic Ontologies of Capital and Empire: Greek Theory and Possibilities for Substantive Democracy.


Slavery and "Abuse Regeneration"

by Christine Bell

"A crucial dynamic in abuse regeneration is the recreation of categories of people to whom human rights do not apply—those who are somehow less human, less to be protected."

Skinner’s depiction of modern day slavery is graphic and challenging. Anyone viewing prohibitions on slavery, or abolition, as historical anachronism, or requiring reinterpretation for modern-day practices, must think again. Skinner persuades us that slavery in its most old fashioned sense is alive and well and, worse than that–on the rise.

In one sense, Skinner’s conclusions are profoundly disturbing and depressing. A practice accepted not just for years, or decades, but for over a century, as morally wrong, and which has been extensively codified as legally wrong, can nonetheless regenerate. What hope is there then for less established, more morally ambiguous human rights issues, such as fair trial rights for the nastiest criminals, or abolition of the death penalty?

However, I suggest that the return of slavery is but one example of a common dynamic in human rights struggles – the dynamic of “abuse regeneration” in which the practices of the human rights violations continue in a changed form so as to raise new challenges for an effective response. This response focuses on what I assert are five key dynamics of “abuse regeneration” as they apply to modern slavery, but also more broadly. I suggest that the concept of “abuse regeneration” must be understood as part of the struggle for human rights.

1. Complacent desuetude. People become complacent about past human rights abuse and moral consensus, and public will to enforce the right is slowly undone.

Human rights abuses often happen under cover of secrecy. The protection of human rights requires ongoing vigilance. Skinner’s article demonstrates that human rights battles are seldom won for all time, but require ongoing renegotiation. The vigilance required is two-fold. First, proactive vigilance is required to seek out new cycles of abuse that tend to happen away from the public’s glare and Skinner’s exposure of modern day slavery is one such attempt. Without investigations such as Skinner’s we might never know the full extent of contemporary slavery.

The second type of vigilance required is perhaps more fundamental, and can perhaps best be termed “moral vigilance” as regards to the content of the right itself. Moral vigilance proactively works to safeguard the moral consensus around the right in question. This vigilance is more difficult to achieve and it is also difficult to demonstrate concrete results to funders of human rights work. The right can be protected by brining in new cross-cutting coalitions, but the coalition-building project must sit somehow with the notion that the right has a universal non-negotiable core. Skinner’s piece demonstrates the types of counter-intuitive coalitions that can be built, but also the complexity of the negotiating between these coalitions and the right’s core essence.

Without moral vigilance to preserve the right, the connection between revealing the rights violation and galvanizing public pressure to end the abuse, is broken. The two go together: without people thinking the right is important and may be at risk, they may be effectively deaf and blind to its presence, under cover, alongside their daily lives. Without an idea that the right is at risk, they may be complacent about supporting those who seek to monitor its enforcement.

2. Performative transformation of wrong into right.

Abusers find ways around the law, and abuses become more subtle so as human rights violators and states can argue that it is beyond the reach of human rights law.

Human rights standards operate in a dialectical relationship with human rights abuses. Rather than stopping human rights abuses, effective enforcement of human rights standards often cause one of two things. First, effective enforcement can prompt little more than new cycles of state and individual denial. As Stan Cohen famously pointed out, as people are confronted with human rights abuses, they often shift from “it is not going on” to more subtle defenses such as “there are reasons why it is difficult to eliminate.” The denial aims to perform a legal evasion: by re-characterizing the problem away from a direct violation which must be stopped, to something less clear, less clear-cut, and with less straightforward means of addressing.

The second result of effective enforcement is mutation of the anti-human rights practice. Soldiers stop blatantly shooting civilians dead, and move to construct elaborate self- defense set piece operations. Or, the state contracts out summary execution to death squads. The state moves torture offshore, and argues that it is beyond the reach of any legal regime, or redefines what torture might be. Skinner provides an example of technical “debt” which slaves work to pay off, which attempt to redefine the relationship as “employer/employee.”

One of the key elements of performative transformation is that it uses law and legal argument to turn non-compliance into possible compliance. Even when this is not fully successful as a technical legal argument, it often succeeds in muddying any clear moral waters (there are not two sides of what the law requires), and so aids and abets “complacent desuetude” to continue.

3. Post-post modern despair.

The above two factors play into a third factor. This is the overwhelming feeling that it is impossible to gain consensus on moral action, that morality is itself an old-fashioned concept and that the world in which we live is so large, with so many problems, so little capacity for political and moral consensus, and so in the grip of structural dynamics of globalization, that we cannot do anything about the most egregious of violations and abuses anyway. Belief in individual agency, and belief in the possibilities and value of collective action, seems out of date and naïve. Post-post modern despair is fuelled by, and fuels, complacent desuetude and performative transformation of wrong into right.

4. Dividing indivisible rights.

Skinner’s article demonstrates the close relationship between abuse of civil and political rights, denial of socio-economic rights, and an ongoing cost to viewing these rights as two separate frameworks. Just as pertinent to ending Skinner’s slavery, are rights 22 -27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as article 4 that prohibits slavery directly. These rights deal with: social security and economic rights necessary to “the free development of his [or her] personality,” rights to work, rights to rest and leisure time, adequate standard of living, education and a cultural life.

Skinner’s example is one of the starkest civil and political rights violations. However, its resurgence owes little to erosion of the concept of civil and political rights, and everything to the global and in-country socio-economic context. A widening gap between rich and poor within and between countries leads to a situation in which low or non-paid “mindless” labor will not be performed by the rich (wherever they are), but is demanded of a poor whose opportunities in life are so limited that slavery becomes possible. Slavery is impossible to sever from the economic factors that propel it, and impossible to address, I would have thought, through criminal measures alone.

5. Recreating the “in”-human.

A crucial dynamic in abuse regeneration is the recreation of categories of people to whom human rights do not apply—those who are somehow less human, less to be protected. In times gone by, this was often done by defining the “other” (women or African Americans) as somehow less than human, and therefore holders of diminished rights. The ambiguous history of human rights shows that often-great leaps forward for human rights were limited by limiting the group to which the new rights were to apply.

In modern times, the paradox of globalization is that while it has freed up lawful international movement of the rich, it has tightened the restrictions on inter-country working by the poor. Slavery, for example, becomes enabled by the illegality of workers, which mean that slaves will not seek the help of law enforcement agents. Even though human rights technically apply to all, for many slaves in developed countries, deportation to a country in which one was enslaved may seem like a poor emancipation.

6. Decoupling domestic and international enforcement.

Human rights were always understood as the primary responsibility of the domestic state, underwritten by international standards and international monitoring bodies. International standards and enforcement must be capable of the same regeneration as human rights abusers achieve. Reiteration as both a repetition and a clarification of time-honored standards must counter new performative legal tricks. State action must be matched with capacity for cooperation.

Depressing as Skinner’s article is, we must caution against complacency, post-post modern despair, performative transformation of wrong into right, and recreation of inhumanity. No struggle for justice is ever complete. The vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still, well, visionary. Neither the U.N., nor the state, nor individuals are utterly ineffective. Agency still matters. Why else are you reading Skinner’s piece, and this response? Skinner’s agency, research, and writing matters, and so it now matters what you will now look for, what you will now see, what you will then do, and how many people you connect with in pursuit of justice.

Christine Bell was born and brought up in Belfast. She is currently Director of the Transitional Justice Institute, and Professor of Public International Law at University of Ulster (based at Magee Campus). She read law at Selwyn College, Cambridge, (1988) and gained an LL.M in Law from Harvard Law School (1990), supported by a Harkness Fellowship. She has authored the book Peace Agreements and Human Rights (Oxford University Press 2000), and a report published by the International Council on Human Rights Policy entitled "Negotiating Justice? Human Rights and Peace Agreements" (2006). She has also taken part in various peace negotiations discussions, giving constitutional law and human rights law advice, and also in training for diplomats, mediators and lawyers.


Slavery: From Public Crime to Private Wrong

by Alison Brysk

“The eradication of public slavery required a revolution in Haiti, and a revolutionary civil war in the United States. In the 21st century, eliminating private slavery will necessitate a revolution in our recognition of rights—and our exercise of global governance."

The fight against slavery was the first international human rights movement, and the elimination of legalized bondage represented a hallmark of Western civilization. But the persistence and revival of this ancient evil shows that in an era of globalization, a prohibited public crime has morphed into a massive private wrong.

Private wrongs” are contemporary patterns of human rights abuse committed by non-governmental forms of authority: from firms to families. While the enslavement of tens of millions of Africans in the Americas was state-sanctioned and sometimes state-sponsored, modern slavery operates in the gaps of governance: in rural backwaters, failed states, and the freefall of illicit migration. Its victims, like most current forms of exploitation, are second-class citizens and “disposable people”—women, children, outcastes, and the marginalized poor.

The key to understanding and combating private wrongs is to recognize these affronts to human dignity as abuses of power as much as any act of government, unmasking their justification as states of nature, cultural traditions, or personal choice. Slavery is not an accident or an atavism; it is a predatory strategy of commodification of fellow human beings in a privatizing world.

In this “race to the bottom,” traditional inequities and stigmas are brands, signaling who can be exploited and how. Women are especially vulnerable to the sex trade—but women are equally vulnerable to exploitation in the “maid trade,” and any other traditional role where domestic disempowerment meets globalized displacement. The problem with the Bush coalition’s undue focus on sex trafficking is that it avoids or distorts the nature and sources of disempowerment; sex is not degrading, subjugation is.

The solution to powerlessness is politics; in Hannah Arendt’s concept of coming together to act in the public sphere. This is more than just “prevention” in the narrow sense—it implies using the international human rights regime to move towards governance for the wretched of the earth. Elements of this system must include U.N. monitoring and coordination, pressure by strong powers, legal and development assistance to willing but weak governments, and sanctions on regimes that tolerate this horror. But above all, it means providing political channels and leverage to victim populations and at-risk groups.

Private wrongs are ameliorated when new groups are recognized as human, new leverage points of global connection are discovered, and new claims for governance are recognized as determinants of human dignity. Freeing the slaves requires recognizing an obscure Dalit debtor as a second-class citizen of a lagging democracy. Leveraging the slave-raiding Sudanese regime may range from imposing U.S. investment sanctions to pressuring the Chinese backers of Khartoum. And expanding governance for human rights means that criminalizing sex tourism is as important as prosecuting pimps, and that voluntary sex workers have as much right to protection as any other form of laborers. The eradication of public slavery required a revolution in Haiti, and a revolutionary civil war in the United States. In the 21st century, eliminating private slavery will necessitate a revolution in our recognition of rights—and our exercise of global governance.

Alison Brysk is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Winner of the 2007-2008 Distinguished Mid-Career Research Award, she has authored or edited six books on international human rights. Professor Brysk has researched and lectured in a dozen countries, and in 2007 held the Fulbright Distinguished Visiting Chair in Global Governance at Canada's University of Waterloo/Centre for International Governance Innovation. Brysk is active in promoting human rights through campus, professional, international, and advocacy organizations and networks. Please visit her website: http://www.alisonbrysk.org.


Combating the Slave Trade: Why Governments are not Good at Governing

by Eric A. Heinze

“What is particularly disturbing is that much of the modern-day slave trade takes place with the full knowledge, and even acquiescence of, state governments."

It is difficult to read Benjamin Skinner’s revealing piece on the international slave trade and not feel revolted that we still live in a world where so many people live in bondage. What is particularly disturbing is that much of the modern-day slave trade takes place with the full knowledge, and even acquiescence of, state governments. It is true that governments like the U.S. and the Netherlands have taken important steps in passing laws that outlaw human trafficking. But like so many of the challenges that confront the international human rights movement today, as well as a host of other international issue-areas, the problem is not a shortage of laws that outlaw or otherwise criminalize such activity. Slavery, the slave-trade, and other forms of human trafficking are outlawed in the domestic legal systems of almost all states, and there are numerous international instruments that likewise outlaw and criminalize such activity. The problem, rather, is that in those states where such problems are particularly pronounced, there is little or no interest in implementing or enforcing these laws.

Almost by their very nature, governments of states are particularly bad at being advocates of specific causes and working toward solving problems in narrow issue areas—whether slavery, environmental degradation, women’s rights, etc. The reason is simple. Unlike non-governmental organizations (NGOs), states governments do not have the luxury of preoccupying themselves with one particular issue or problem and dedicating all their resources to addressing it. It is almost a truism to say that governments will always have competing political imperatives. To be sure, governments do maintain various offices in their foreign ministries specifically intended to combat particular problems, such as the U.S. State Department’s Office to Combat Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. But as Skinner’s article suggests, at the end of the day the efforts of individuals working in these offices will end up as bullet-points in a policy hierarchy that will probably take a back seat to some supposedly more important concern. The author’s example of Condoleezza Rice’s refusal to scold India for its tolerance of human trafficking is no doubt a result of exactly such a process.

NGOs, on the other hand, do not share this dilemma. They do not have to be concerned with securing access to resources, procuring trade agreements, placating constituencies, and defending the homeland. It is therefore not especially surprising that the various grassroots organizations that Skinner mentions, and not state governments, have been at the forefront of the fight against the modern-day slave trade. Furthermore, unlike governments, which have to prioritize issues and “multitask,” NGOs specialize and can focus on “depth” instead of “breadth.” Unfortunately, aside from knowledge and specialization, the material resources needed to be truly effective in such endeavors lie almost exclusively with states—hence Skinner’s call for government partnerships with such organizations.

But such a call is indicative of a broader revelation in global efforts to regulate certain international activity. That is, paradoxically, governments are not very good at governing—at least globally. One need only examine the foreign policy-making process of the U.S., or the process by which international agreements are concluded among states to reach this conclusion. Duly designated representatives of states, in all their grandeur and formality, gather at U.N. headquarters in New York, extol the virtues of the non-binding declaration they are about to pass, cast a vote (sometimes), and then pat themselves on the back for taking such an important step toward eradicating some repugnant global practice, many of whom know full well that their government is complicit in such a practice.

Perhaps instead of the various offices in the U.S. State Department relying on the Secretary of State to be the tip of the spear in this fight, these offices should coordinate with their counterparts in other states, as well as the various grassroots organizations working in this area, and allow people with specialized knowledge and who are dedicated to solving this problem have a stab at it. As Parag Khanna argued in the article the HRHW Roundtable discussed last month, perhaps it is time for international relations to go beyond what takes place in foreign ministries, embassies, and sluggish, overly-formal diplomatic fora. This is already happening to a certain degree (among law enforcement agencies, for example), but unless it starts happening in the human rights arena, we can expect to read a lot more of these depressing articles in years to come.

Eric A. Heinze is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Waging Humanitarian War: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention (forthcoming, SUNY Press) and numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of international human rights and the ethics and law of armed conflict. Dr. Heinze teaches courses on international law and organization, international human rights, and international relations theory.