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A “war on slavery?”

July 19, 2009

Over at Coming Anarchy, “Munro Ferguson” writes:

This past December, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon warned that the current geo-economic crisis would add fuel to the already raging fire that is international human trafficking. 146 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, there exists more slaves on planet earth now than at any other given time.

The UN puts the number of current slaves at some 27 million human beings, though a recent UN report offers the caveat that forced labor is much harder to track and enumerate than the most proliferate form, that of sex-slavery, and so the exact number may well be higher.

He accompanies his post with a link to a SkyTV documentary on sex trafficking. All pretty appalling stuff, albeit depressingly familiar to anybody whose even skimmed the surface of the subject. So, while I don’t particularly like describing a campaign against thugs, criminals, and slavers as a “war,” I have to agree that this issue needs to be much higher on the international agenda.

I know some of our readers have expertise in this area, so I welcome any comments. My sense is that the policy portfolio has to include (1) more aggressive efforts against trafficking rings, (2) economic development in regions such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe, (3) policies that exempt slaves from the legal requirement for passports and grant them at least temporary refugee status, and (4) massive public awareness campaigns to deter men from frequenting prostitutes at high risk of being sex slaves.

On that last note, it strikes me that even if there’s some truth to the argument, talking about how all prostitution is rape doesn’t help matters. Some prostitution really is rape–prostitution involving sex slaves–and at least some of the men committing the crime might change their behavior if they realized what they were doing. None of this will help, of course, in countries where dominant norms mean that men–and government officials–just don’t care.

The really thorny issue, as I understand it, concerns legalization. The underlying theory of legal prostitution makes sense, insofar as it allows state agencies to regulate the business and puts prostitutes in regular contact with state officials. But, in practice, there’s at least some evidence that legalization provides a “protective belt” that allows slavery and other forms of exploitation to flourish. This is one of those areas in which my long-dormant libertarian side wakes up, in that it strikes me that the problem isn’t legalization per se, but incomplete legalization, inadequate enforcement, and the stigmatization of prostitutes such that rape and exploitation are somehow considered part of their job description.

Anyway, some of the arguments for and against can be found here.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.