The New Global Slave Trade
Ethan B. Kapstein is Paul Dubrule Professor of Sustainable Development at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development, in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is Economic Justice in an Unfair World: Toward a Level Playing Field.See more by this author
BACK WITH A VENGEANCE
When most people think about slavery -- if they think about it at all -- they probably assume that it was eliminated during the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Slavery and the global slave trade continue to thrive to this day; in fact, it is likely that more people are being trafficked across borders against their will now than at any point in the past.
This human stain is not just a minor blot on the rich tapestry of international commerce. It is a product of the same political, technological, and economic forces that have fueled globalization. Just as the brutal facts of the Atlantic slave trade ultimately led to a reexamination of U.S. history -- U.S. historiography until the 1960s had been largely celebratory -- so must growing awareness of the modern slave trade spark a recognition of the flaws in our contemporary economic and governmental arrangements. The current system offers too many incentives to criminals and outlaw states to market humans and promises too little in the way of sanctions.
Contemporary slavery typically involves women and children being forced into servitude through violence and deprivation. Disturbingly, the advanced industrial states have failed to to take much action to address the issue. The problem is one of political will, not capability, for the rich countries of the world have at their disposal numerous instruments that, if their leaders had the courage to use them, could greatly curtail the global slave trade. Just as the British government (after much prodding by its subjects) once used the Royal Navy to stamp out the problem, today's great powers must bring their economic and military might to bear on this most crucial of undertakings.
After all, ending slavery is not simply a moral crusade, as compelling as the moral case may be. There are also important self-interested reasons why the West should lead a charge to eliminate this practice. The fact of the matter is that the same people who engage in human trafficking also contribute to the deepening criminalization of the world economy overall, often operating in close association with corrupt officials around the world. By allowing slavery to go unpunished, states unwittingly erode the foundations of the international economic system, which requires that governments be capable of enforcing bilateral and multilateral agreements and the rule of law.