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Blog: Humanist Voices

global slavery indexIn April of 1708 in a document entitled "Board of Trade to the Governors of the English Colonies", it was concluded that it was "absolutely necessary that a trade [slavery] so beneficial to the kingdom should be carried on to the greatest advantage."[1] Some of the royal families of Europe were investors in the slave trade. John Locke, a philosopher with a few things to say about liberty, owned shares in a slave-trading company, as did Enlightenment figure Voltaire. While legalized slavery has since been banished, slavery and slavery-like conditions persist. And it still has its corporate investors, hereditary backers, and the indifference or dysfunction of government.


Fortunately, there are those who have invested in studying the problem in the hope that with more reliable information in hand and with endorsements from high profile figures like Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton and Sir Richard Branson, we might give new impetus to the elimination of this scourge.

2013 is the first time the Global Slavery Index (GSI) has been published. It is unique for two reasons. First, instead of just relying on secondary sources--published reports of various types--it uses statistical sampling to estimate the prevalence of slavery, and extrapolation to estimate prevalence in countries not sampled. Second, it combines both sources of data into a single report: "The GSI allows us to have a global picture of the situation of modern slavery – something that has never been done before."[2]

The GPI defines slavery as "The status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised. [Slavery] Includes slavery-like practices: debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children (including in armed conflict) and descent-based slavery," and also "human trafficking and forced labour." 

This first GSI was unable to provide deeper analysis of all the 162 countries studied. Thus, "a decision was made to focus on countries at the more extreme end of the slavery spectrum. Accordingly, the countries included [in these deeper analyses] are": 

--The worst countries in the Index (Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Moldova, Benin,
Cote d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Gabon; included in the body of this report);
--The best countries in the Index (Iceland, Ireland, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden,
Norway, Luxembourg, Finland, Denmark; included in the body of this report);
--The ten countries with the highest estimated absolute numbers in modern slavery (India, China, Pakistan,
Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar and Bangladesh; on the
website; and
--A selection of other major countries of particular interest, either because they are major sending, transit or
destination countries (e.g.: Yemen and the United States), or their response is emerging to be particularly
innovative (e.g.: Brazil and Philippines; on the website). 


 Below are two charts from the report that provide some sense of the scale of the problem. 

Picture 25


Picture 27

Progressives and humanitarians in general may wonder why a GSI hasn't been developed sooner, or, to the point, why hasn't slavery, surely among the worst evils of humanity, been among our highest priorities? Surely there are many candidate explanations for this. But one study from 2005 caught my eye: "Do Americans Care About Human Rights?"[3] It reported that: 

1) Support for human rights is only moderate (in 2002 only 47% of Americans found human rights to be "very important") and is unstable over time.
2) Support for human rights ranks below many goals of "national self-interest" like "stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States" or "maintaining superior military power worldwide."
3) Support for human rights depends strongly on its perceived costs.
4) For many Americans human rights simply isn't on their radar. 

But really, how much does public opinion really influence American foreign policy? As has been noted by others and is readily observable, the democratic public in America often appears to be kept in a virtual lockbox when it comes to having any significant influence on military policy and foreign affairs.

The article goes on to discuss factors that correlate with endorsement (i.e., agreement with) and commitment to (willingness to commit resources) to human rights. Global knowledge and increased education correlates with endorsement but not commitment. Authoritarianism is not related to endorsement of principle, but correlates negatively with commitment. People high in the social dominance orientation show "somewhat lower" support for human rights principles and like authoritarians are less likely to support human rights commitments. Belief in a malleable world increases human rights commitment, while a fatalistic attitude does not. 

Other findings are of interest. Postconventional moral reasoning manifests in higher commitment to human rights. (To me, one of the highest priorities of humanism is creating the social conditions for the emergence of much higher levels of postconventional moral, cognitive and personality attainments.)  A construct called "dispositional empathy" predicted higher endorsement and commitment. 

"Why do some individuals develop a commitment to human rights whereas most do not?" ask the authors of this study. And then they make one of those remarks that tell us so much about our current moment in history: "This important question has been studied rarely."

So, what to do? One response is to work for long term educational changes. Education for human rights is woefully weak in the US, but desperately needed.[4] "One of the most effective pedagogical tools of peace education is futures "imaging," or imagining transformations of the world that embody the conditions of peace and justice, to cultivate the "moral imagination" of learners in order to enable them to see peace as an actual condition of a preferred future."[5]  Pushing for socially engaged creativity, imagination, and futures perspectives in the schools certainly appears warranted.

Another structural change necessary is ending parental practice that leads to indifference or even hostility to human rights. "...punitiveness and a lack of affection in childhood induce authoritarianism and social dominance, these early experiences prepare one to be ethnocentric and concerned for superiority and
power rather than to adopt global concerns such as human rights. A child who receives substantial affection and little punitiveness may never become a champion of human rights, but that child has better emotional preparation for later embracing human rights and other global concerns."[6]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. We knew the problem of slavery existed then. What explains slavery's persistence? Asked another way, what are we going to do about it?


[1] p. 309 in Lauren, Paul Gordon. (1998). The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
[2] p. 2 in Global Slavery Index Q&A
[3] McFarland, S. and Mathews, M. (2005). "Do Americans Care About Human Rights?" in Journal of Human Rights, 4: 305-319.
[4] "...children's rights remain a largely unpopular or unknown subject in the United States on the whole." "...the fact is that human rights and peace education are often labeled "too Left" or "too critical" of conditions or foreign policy in the United States, and teachers are reluctant to teach subjects that may offend parents or administrators and undermine their jobs. This self-censorship and hostile environment are major obstacles to human rights curriculum." "These important developments in human rights norms [UN conventions, charters, declarations, etc.] are largely ignored in classrooms across the country." pp. 241, 240, 232 respectively in Ensalaco, M. and Majka, L.C. (Eds) (2005). In Children's Human Rights: Progress and Challenges for Children Worldwide. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham Maryland, 2005.
[5] Ibid., pp. 239-240
[6] p. 317 in Mcfarland and Mathews.


-Eric Snyder 

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