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Exploring the Analogy between Modern Trafficking in Humans and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade


Karen E. Bravo


Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law


Boston University International Law Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2007

Abstract:     
In 2007 the United Kingdom celebrates the 200th anniversary of its abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 2008 the U.S. will mark the 200th anniversary of its own prohibition of the trans-Atlantic trade.

Yet, according to various sources, 27 million people worldwide are enslaved, and each year thousands of people are trafficked into the U.S. The modern re-emergence of trafficking in human beings and of slavery is said to be linked to the deepening interconnection among countries in the global economy, overpopulation (with its consequent production of disposable people), and the economic and other vulnerabilities of the victims. In response to the reported increase, some academics have explored the potential applicability of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Also, a significant number of academics and commentators highlight in their work the evolution of the attempts to deal with the phenomenon of modern trafficking in humans from the international and domestic U.S. reactions to the white slavery hysteria of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the international instruments formulated to combat it. In addition, references and analogies to the trans-Atlantic slave trade are also made in government policy statements, in the literature analyzing the modern phenomenon and in other fora.

Commentators analogize to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in order to emphasize the similarities in the phenomena and to urge that like-minded people rise up to end the appalling practice, much as was eventually done to end the trans-Atlantic trade. The content of the analogies varies with the intent of their users. Either the old slavery is compared to the new slavery with respect to, for example, the egregiousness of abusive treatment of the enslaved, the level of interconnection of the phenomenon with the global economy, or the race or ethnicity of the victims in order to distinguish the new slavery from the old. Sometimes, the implicit hypothesis is that modern slavery is more widespread and awful, and involves more victims and, by extension, more human degradation than did the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Still others invoke the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery to assume a mantle of self-righteousness, and distance themselves, their political and economic system, their state and its efforts, from the repugnant phenomenon.

Is the analogy to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and/or slavery relevant? Is it useful? Can it contribute to understanding of the phenomenon of modern trafficking in humans or lead to mechanisms to combat human trafficking in the Twenty-first Century? It is my hypothesis that those who have used the analogy have failed to explore it other than superficially, or to adequately map out the similarities and differences between the two phenomena. As a consequence, the ability to effectively combat the modern traffic in human beings (or indeed, to combat the slavery (or exploitative or forced labor) of the estimated 27 million people who are held in slavery within state borders but not trafficked) has been compromised both internationally and domestically. I argue that the analogy is underutilized as currently used because it does not illuminate the essential similarities or differences in the phenomena. Instead, use of the analogy too often appeals to emotions to serve particular ends of the user.

I examine uses of the analogy to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and their impact, and map out the characteristics that both underlie and distinguish the phenomena to determine whether the trans-Atlantic slave trade, more than the white slavery of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offers lessons that may be used to combat modern trafficking in humans. The heritage of white slavery is more entrenched in the legal frameworks constructed in response to the modern traffic, but the analogy to the trans-Atlantic slave trade adds to a richer understanding of the modern phenomenon and illuminates a potentially more effective path to its eradication. While it is the trans-Atlantic slave trade analogy that is most frequently invoked, it is the mechanisms to combat the later white slavery that are the progenitors of the most dominant of the frameworks used to understand and combat the modern traffic.

I also expose the inherent contradictions of the competing (and complementary) invocation of analogies to trans-Atlantic slavery and the white slave trade: while the users of the analogy invoke the image of enslaved blacks to inspire the taking of action against the modern trafficking in humans, at the same time the subordination of blacks, blackness and the colored other is viewed as more natural than the enslavement of whites and whiteness. It is the enslavement of whiteness that, together with the threats to state borders (territory and authority) precipitated a coordinated international campaign against modern traffic in humans. And, ironically, the racism that arose from the phenomenon of the trans-Atlantic slave trade prevents users of the analogy from delving more deeply into the substantive meanings and similarities between the two phenomena.

The analogy to the trans-Atlantic slave trade can be relevant if explored more deeply - there are similarities not merely in individual plights but in the deeper structures of the world economic system and the factors that cause and foster the rise in the phenomena. Comparisons of the modern trafficking in humans, white slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade reveals the essential nature of the phenomena - at bottom, they all trade in human labor.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 89

Keywords: human trafficking, slavery

JEL Classification: K33

working papers series


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Date posted: June 28, 2007 ; Last revised: February 10, 2012

Suggested Citation

Bravo, Karen E., Exploring the Analogy between Modern Trafficking in Humans and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Boston University International Law Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2007. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=996455 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.996455

Contact Information

Karen E. Bravo (Contact Author)
Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law ( email )
530 West New York Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202
United States

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