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December 2002/January 2003
Slave Redemption—A Tactic of Last Resort

By Martin Arrowsmith


In southern Sudan a western charity pays $50 per person to free Dinka people. They were enslaved after their villages were raided by militia linked to the Sudanese government. In northern India, a group of women band together to form a small credit union; over a period of months they save enough to repay the debt that holds one of their members in bondage, then they begin to save to buy another woman’s freedom. In south India a child is freed from slavery when a charity pays off the man who has enslaved him to make beedi cigarettes. Today, with 27 million slaves in the world, redemption (making a payment to free a slave) can and does happen anywhere. But why is this happening? How can we understand the role of redemption in the global anti-slavery movement?

While slave redemption has been in the news lately, it actually has a very long history. Slaves were being redeemed long before there was slavery in the U.S. In Greece, Rome, and other ancient societies, slaves were sometimes purchased from their owners and freed. During the Crusades, enslavement and ransom were central components of war finances and strategy. The first organizations that can be thought of as charities were set up in the Middle Ages in order to purchase the freedom of Europeans captured and enslaved by North African and Middle Eastern pirates and slave raiders. Indeed, the verse in the U.S. “Marine’s Hymn”— to the shores of Tripoli—refers to an early 19th century raid on these Barbary pirates to stop their raiding, enslavement and ransoming of Europeans and Americans. Frederick Douglass, the famous 19th century abolitionist and escaped slave, was himself redeemed after supporters of slavery mounted a series of attempts at kidnapping him. The redeeming or ransoming of slaves probably goes back to the very beginnings of human slavery, to the very beginnings of written human history.

Before slavery was illegal in most countries, redemption was an act of charity, and itself perfectly legal. Many cultures have a tradition of redemption, including North African societies such as Sudan. Today, however, within the context of the general illegality of slavery, the buying of slaves, even to free them, is seen by many people as complicity in a crime.

While redemption can go on around the world wherever slavery exists, it came to the attention of most Americans when groups like Christian Solidarity International began to buy back slaves in Sudan in 1995. Slave raiding in Sudan was part of the government’s strategy to destroy the resistance of the southern groups fighting for independence. Slavery existed for hundreds of years in Sudan, almost disappeared in the 20th century, but was re-established as an act of terror in the civil war there. Some international agencies expressed the criticism that buying back slaves would create an expanding market for slaves, feed resources to the slaveholders, lead to fraud in the process, and would not ultimately end slavery.

Not long after these criticisms emerged I spoke with a man from southern Sudan who answered in this way: “Of course we understand that the money paid to buy back our relatives may go to buy arms to be used against us in the future, but when it is your family, your children at stake, you pay.” Likewise, a man involved in redemption pointed out that there may have been fraud (the “buying back” of people who had never been enslaved), but he asserted that “it is better to buy back some people who have never been slaves, than to fail to rescue the many who are suffering in slavery.” On the question of whether redemption in Sudan has brought a greater risk of slave raids, there is insufficient evidence to make a clear judgment.

The process of redemption must also be seen in its cultural context. The civil war has been marked by recurrent truces between the Dinka and the Baggara tribesmen who make up the majority of the militia, truces that have provided the opportunity to recover, usually at a price, family members as well as livestock. Equally, the Nuer and Dinka tribes of southern Sudan, while now allied against the Muslim north, have long been in conflict that includes raiding between the two tribes. In early October 1999 their leaders met to discuss “the return of women, children, and cattle captured in raids or abducted during the years of hostility between the tribes.” The fact that the victims of slave raiding have themselves raided other tribes has been rarely mentioned in the Western press.

If there is good news about the controversy over redemption in Sudan it is that the civil war there has entered a new stage and fewer raids are taking place while peace talks continue. The U.S. government has become involved and has exerted significant pressure on the northern government to end the raids and come to an agreement with the southern provisional government. However, the hoped-for ending of the need for redemption in Sudan will not resolve the questions that surround redemption. On the other hand, this change may allow us to enlarge the discussion to include how redemption fits into anti-slavery work around the world.

In India, for example, redemption is actually illegal. In that country the primary form of slavery is “debt bondage” and the law that frees those in bondage forbids that their “debts” are repaid to bring about their freedom. The reason is that since these debts were offered and manipulated illegally in the first place, they have no standing. Further, there is a resistance to “rewarding” any slaveholder. Since slavery itself is universally illegal, slaveholders should no more be recompensed for giving up slaves than burglars should be paid to return their stolen goods. That said, there are situations in India where, primarily because the police are slow to respond to the crime of slavery, redemption is the only immediate and effective way to remove a person from danger.

The lesson to be drawn from these examples is this: redeeming slaves has a role in the anti-slavery movement, but only when other actions have failed or are impossible. In one way it is the lesser of several evils. The greatest evil is enslavement. Paying a slaveholder or a middleman to free a slave is regrettable since freedom is a right and shouldn’t need to be purchased. Yet, when there are situations where the authorities will not take action, where freedom is available only through redemption, and where enslaved people are suffering and threatened, then redemption may be the only immediate answer. A good case can be made both for and against redemption; a key criterion has to be that it be used only when it won’t make things worse. It is but one tactic in an overall movement against slavery.

So, if redemption is a tactic, we have to ask: what are the other strategies that will bring people out of slavery? One effective method is to support partner organizations that raid workplaces where slaves are held, anywhere from quarries to carpet looms. Others help slaves to freedom by educating those in debt bondage about their rights and then helping them to act on those rights. One of the greatest obstacles to freedom is the inability or unwillingness of governments to enforce their own anti-slavery laws (even Sudan has a law against slavery). Through governments and the UN, an important way forward is to get police enforcing these laws; at times that requires asking countries like the U.S. to use their economic and diplomatic influence. The recent shift in the chocolate industry to work toward “slave-free” chocolate, has shown how partnerships between businesses, unions, and human rights organizations can be formed to cut slavery out of a product chain, in this case slavery on cocoa farms in West Africa. After freedom comes the need for rehabilitation, through education, micro-credit, and other supports. Without rehabilitation people can fall back into slavery. At the end of the day the global anti-slavery movement is aiming for a situation where we are never forced to choose the “lesser of two evils,” where liberation and rehabilitation are achieved as a right, not at a price.

Martin Arrowsmith
is a writer and activist based in Washington, DC.


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