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I very much welcome this debate, especially if it contributes to bringing this House, the Government and all of us to the point of being more feelingly alive to the sufferings of our fellow creatures.
I suppose a wise Bishop speaks with some humility on this issue. Christians have been involved in the slave trade and in slave ownership, although of course eventually they were at the forefront of the abolition movement. Churches as institutions benefited from the proceeds of the trade. Indeed, the initial Christian response to the horrors of transporting, trading and owning slaves was to ameliorate the abuses rather than to abolish the system.
Today's debate offers us an opportunity to remind ourselves of the wide range of human rights abuses and violations that continue in our day, and about which we have already heard. In addition to traditional slavery and the slave trade, and bearing in mind the distinctions in terminology developed by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, these abuses include, as we have heard, the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labour, the sexual mutilation of female children, the use of children in armed conflicts, debt bondage, the traffic in persons and the sale of human organs, among other things.
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I want to draw attention in particular to two forms of abuse that might particularly concern us. First, among the vast, continuing and widespread practices we might legitimately categorise as slavery are the 100 million or so children exploited for their labour, according to a recent estimate by the International Labour Organisation.
We know that child labour is in great demand because it is cheap and because children are naturally more docile and easier to discipline than adults, and nearly always too frightened to complain. At the extreme fringe, children are kidnapped, held in remote camps and chained at night to prevent escape. Often they are put to work on road building and stone quarrying. These practices damage their health for life, deprive them of education and, worst of all, steals their childhood from them.
As we have heard, NGOs have for some time proposed international timetables for the wiping out of the worst forms of child exploitation. They have recommended the immediate elimination of forced labour camps, and that children be excluded from the most hazardous forms of work, as defined by the World Health Organisation. I hope that today's debate will encourage the Government to monitor progress on these recommendations.
Secondly, I want to draw attention to the plight of rural migrant workers, which came to prominence with the tragic deaths of the cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004. It has been suggested that the living and working conditions of some 60,000 seasonal migrant workers in this country are tantamount to modern-day slavery, and need to be challenged by those with a concern for equality and human rights.
In spite of the Gangmasters Licensing Act, migrant workers continue to face opposition from settled communities, who are wary of their numbers and fearful of the assumed economic and social pressures they place on towns and villages.
Your Lordships will be interested to know that the Churches Rural Group, a co-ordinating group of Churches Together in England, works with these people to provide advice, information and legal assistance. It also encourages Churches and other bodies to be intermediaries in the disputes between misunderstood migrant workers and local residents.
There are countless other abuses it would be possible to highlight, and to which, I have no doubt, others will draw attention. This debate draws our attention to the clear truth that slavery is indeed unfinished business, and that much more is needed to be done, not least in the G8, if we are to eliminate contemporary forms of exploitation. It is vital that we do this, because today's debate touches on our most fundamental understandings of what makes for human dignity and value.
To that end, as we have heard, the Churches and Church-related groups, societies and organisations are uniting under the banner "Act to End Slavery", to highlight the relevance of the bicentenary of the 1807
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abolition by the Slave Trade Act to today's world. I very much hope that this debate will make an effective contribution to that process.
First, I invite you to sit with me under a tree in southern Sudan as I talk to little Deng, aged about 10. He has just been brought home from the north of Sudan by Arab traders who bring their cattle south in the dry season. They are friends of the African Dinka people and risk a great deal to try to find, buy back and bring back men, women and children who have been abducted and taken into slavery. Today they have brought back several hundred slaves, including little Deng. He is traumatised, for he has just discovered that in the raid in which he was captured, two years previously, both his parents were killed. So he has just learned that he is an orphan. However, towards the end of our talk, I get a wistful little smile from Deng, who says, "At least I am home again now. I am called by my own name, Deng"the Dinka word for rain, which is precious. So it means someone to be cherished. He continues, "At least I am no longer called Abid", the Arabic for "slave".
Now to a different scene. Sitting on the floor of a wooden house in a refugee camp in the borderlands of Thailand and Burma, I am talking to a young orphan Karen girl in our home for children who have had to flee for their lives from the atrocities perpetrated by Burma's brutal military regimethe so-called State Peace and Development Council. We sometimes invite our children to draw memories of what happened to their families in Burma. This child shows me a vivid painting of her pregnant aunt and her two elderly grandparents being forced to carry heavy loads for SPDC soldiers who are beating her grandparents as they struggle under the 60- pound loads of rice or ammunition that they are forced to carry from dawn to dusk. I could multiply so many stories of the terrible reality of contemporary slavery.
In more general terms, in Sudan, abduction and enslavement on a huge scale has been one of the weapons used by the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime since it took power in 1989. During the 1990s, NIF troops, accompanied by Mujahedeen Jihad fighters and the Murahaleen tribesmen, undertook massive offensives against civilians. On many occasions I was in Bahr-el-Ghazal when the attacks were taking place around me. I saw the evidence of the massacre of countless civilians and the grief of families whose loved ones had been abducted into slavery.
I was also able to interview many, such as little Deng, who had been rescued from slavery and obtained compelling evidence of their ordeals, which proved beyond doubt the appropriateness of the use of the term
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"slavery today". Therefore, with great respect, I must disagree with the point of view put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, in his academic analysis.
Anti-Slavery International has compiled a formidable array of evidence of continuing slavery in Sudan, the ineffectiveness of procedures to rescue and return those who have been abducted and the failure to prosecute those responsible. Moreover, the Rift Valley Institute individually has identified and interviewed more than 12,000 people violently abducted from southern Sudan between 1983 and 2002. Its research also estimates that over 11,000 of those abducted have still not even been accounted for. Moreover, the Commission for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) has helped to rescue and reunite with their families 2,628 abductees between 1999 and 2004; but leaving at least 10,000 still waiting to be returned to their homes.
Anti-Slavery International is not aware that any prosecutions have been brought to date. Will Her Majesty's Government urge the National Islamic Front regime to enable CEAWC to recommence and complete all necessary work to trace and rescue all who have been abducted and enable all who wish to return home to do so; to grant the special rapporteur and other personnel unrestricted access to all relevant areas; and to identify abductions and slavery as serious human rights violations to be addressed in the new constitution for Sudan?
I turn very briefly to Burma where another brutal military junta took power by military force, and which oppresses all who oppose it. Its policies towards ethnic national groups such as the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Chin peoples can well be termed genocidal. Among the systematic violations of human rights are well-documented policies of forced labour and forcible recruitment of children into the army.
Civilians are rounded up and forced to work as porters for SPCD soldiers and/or to walk ahead of them as human minesweepers. More than 1 million people have had to flee their villages, living and dying as internee displaced peoples in the jungle. Burma also has the highest number of child soldiers in the world70,000, according to a Human Rights Watch report which has the poignant title, "My Gun was as Tall as Me".
I have also taught young boys who have escaped from the SPDC army, where they were forced to serve as conscripts. One told me that one reason why he had escaped was that he could not bear to have to obey orders to beat old people who were struggling as forced porters to carry 30 kg loads of rice or ammunition from dawn until dusk with no food or water.
What representations are Her Majesty's Government making to the SPDC to end those policies of forced labour and the forced conscription of children into the Burmese army? Will the Government consider initiating proceedings against Burma for crimes against humanity.
As has been said by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and by the right reverend Prelate, in 2007 there will be commemorationsand I suspect celebrationsof the
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anniversary of William Wilberforce's endeavours to end slavery and the slave trade. As the debate indicates, however, that is mission not accomplished.
I urge Her Majesty's Government to adopt a much more robust policy with Sudan, Burma and other nations where slavery persists to do whatever is necessary to bring an end to slavery. It is a cause for shame that slavery in diverse forms continues in our world today. International protest brought down apartheid. Why are we so silent about slavery? It is at least as great an evil. I hope passionately that we will hear robust proposals from the Minister that extend the commitment to "Make Poverty History", to "Make Slavery History".
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