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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Slavery in Libya: A failure of national governments and the international system

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By Madi Jorbateh

That Africans are enslaved in Libya should not be a shock to anyone if we are to be honest to ourselves. It is common knowledge that North Africa and Middle Eastern Arab-Muslim societies from Mauritania, Sudan to Egypt and the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia until today continue to practice slavery against black Africans! African leaders, intellectuals and politicians as well as the African Union are indeed aware of this situation just as the West and their politicians and intellectuals equally know about it. Global Slavery Index reports that more than 40,000 or 1% of Mauritanians live under slavery or some form of servitude and these are essentially black Mauritanians.’

Yet the situation in Libya is first and foremost about migrants. These are usually young and middle-aged Africans from south of the Sahara seeking economic opportunities because their own countries offer no hope for them. They face poverty, unemployment and deprivation at home hence they seek greener pastures mainly in Europe in order to fend for their families back home. Libya has become a key transit route due to the breakdown of law and order since Ghadaffi was ousted in 2011.

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However, as migrants, they have rights that must be respected and protected. There is already a UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families that calls for the recognition of their rights. Article 11 of the convention states that a migrant or his or her family shall not be held in slavery or servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour. Yet in Libya, this is precisely what has been happening to African migrants for years of which the governments in Africa and the West as well as the United Nations, the EU and the AU are quite aware!

For example, in 2008 the EU and AU convened a conference in Paris on migration because they knew the situation firsthand. In fact, the migration situation has become so dire simply because of the failure of both African and European governments. On the one hand, African governments have failed to create the necessary favourable socio-economic and political conditions for their people to earn and live decent lives at home. While European governments, on the other hand, have also raised their immigration wall so high that these migrants have to seek illegal and dangerous means to enter.

This is not my opinion but African parliamentarians themselves said so way back in 2008 when they issued a declaration on migration following a major conference they had in Rabat, Morocco: “The lack of a wide and global multilateral approach to migration policy and restrictions on legitimate migrants have dire direct consequences, whereby migrants are increasingly victims of rejection, cruelty, ill-treatment, aggression and marginalization, leading to criminal behaviour such as human trafficking and hate crime stemming from xenophobia.” For once these politicians were honest to acknowledge that, “the deterioration of the political and socio-economic situations, particularly engendered by the absence of democracy, unemployment, poverty, armed conflicts, insecurity, inequality in international commercial exchanges, transhumance, environmental degradation, climatic changes, and natural disasters are among the root causes of massive migration and forced displacement of populations in Africa.”

Given the importance and linkage between governance and development, African governments had in fact adopted a Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance in 2007 where they stipulated in Article 33 that state parties shall institutionalise good economic and corporate governance through effective and efficient public sector management, combating corruption, prudent and sustainable utilisation of public resources as well as?equitable allocation of national wealth and natural resources to eradicate poverty.


Yet what have these African governments achieved in order to ensure the overall economic well-being of their people? Nada! But the fact remains that Africa has all the means and opportunities and resource at its disposal to produce one of the most advanced societies in the world, if not the most advanced.
The situation in Libya therefore is the combination of the failure of African and Western governments. While the West was quite enthusiastic to support Libyans to oust Ghadaffi, yet the West failed to demonstrate even more goodwill and stronger commitment to ensure that Libya does not collapse. Thus the failure of the West to support a post-Ghadaffi Libya just as they failed to also support Afghanistan and Iraq after invading those countries largely explains the terrible chaos in Libya with its attendant consequences as we see today.

Therefore if the situation in Libya has deteriorated into open slave trade, the blame must be laid squarely at the feet of African and Western leaders and governments! With slavery the entire narrative should therefore change with urgency and action. Slavery has been a longstanding institution in human society since time immemorial. But the growing awareness of the inherent equality and dignity of human beings have caused various societies at various times to abolish this abominable institution over the decades and centuries. Yet for it continue to prevail until today truly calls for urgent action.

We know that when Haiti gained its independence in 1804, it immediately abolished slavery. In 1807 the British abolished the slave trade within their so-called British Empire but not the institution of slavery itself, which they came to abolish in 1833 with a new law.

Since 1800 various US states abolished slavery until 1863 when the US Government itself issued the Emancipation Proclamation banning slavery. Similarly many Latin and South American and European countries abolished slavery at various times including France in 1818.

Slavery is a crime against humanity as stipulated in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In fact the first international convention against slavery was adopted in 1926 under the auspices of the League of Nations classifying the practice as a crime. When the UN was founded in 1945, it adopted the 1926 convention and even augmented it in 1956 with the adoption of a supplementary convention on the abolition of slavery, the slave trade, and institutions and practices similar to slavery. Article 3 of the convention stipulated that anyone involved in slave trade commits a criminal offence that attracts severe penalties.

Because the right not to be enslaved is recognised as non-derogable, i.e. inviolable by anyone under any circumstances, the convention went on to stipulate that no state could therefore make any reservation against it. This means one has to accept the convention as it is in whole. In international law, there are a number of crimes that are considered so serious that they attain what is called ‘jus cogens’ norm. These are aggression, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, piracy, slavery and slave-related practices and torture. These are crimes that under no circumstances whatsoever could they be perpetrated, justified, defended or excused.
Hence the situation in Libya is an international crime scene that by the norms of international law all nations are obligated to take direct action to stop slavery and slave trade in that country. Failure to do so means all nations of the world and international organisations are reneging on their fundamental obligations to uphold a ‘jus cogens’ norm.

Already the African Charter, under Article 5 clearly states that no one should be subjected to slavery or slave trade among other jus cogens crimes. Therefore African governments are required by their own law to take action in Libya. In 2007, the African Commission had already urged African states including Libya to respect the rights of migrants by ensuring that national laws relating to migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons are in line with international standards and conventions.

The situation in Libya is unacceptable. It requires urgent African and global response. So far African leaders have not undertaken any determined and committed effort to address this situation even though the reason African youths are in Libya is because of the failure of African leaders and their governments. It is high time African citizens, like you and me, rise up to demand good governance as the foundation of economic development and growth that will create opportunities for the youth of the continent to remain home with dignity and security.

There is need to engage the United Nations to enforce international law in Libya. Human traffickers and those engaged in slavery and slave trade must be forcefully contained and brought to justice. The European Union and European governments must be engaged to review their immigration laws and practices to promote and facilitate legal migration and combat xenophobia.

Fragile or collapsed states such as Libya must be engaged more effectively and strategically to enable them to stand up on their own to recover and end conflicts. Above all there is need to review global economic and political institutions, laws and processes in order to ensure fair trade, widespread prosperity and equal participation and protection between nations.

As an immediate and rapid response, the African Union must begin to mobilize its forces to clampdown on slave trading centres, traffickers and perpetrators of slavery in Libya. Given the international dimension of the crime of slavery, the law is on the side of nations to use all means to bring slavery to a stop immediately.

The AU action must be authorized by the UN Security Council and supported by the EU as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organisation of Islamic Conference among other global and regional institutions.
After enduring the abominable Arab Slave Trade and the Atlantic Slave Trade of many centuries ago, Africa and Africans and indeed the world must not ever allow Africans to undergo another round of slavery especially inside Africa itself. Therefore the world has a moral, legal and political obligation to use all means including military force to stop slavery in Libya and in all other parts of Africa and the world.

Furthermore Arab societies and individuals have to abandon racism and the misguided notion that the Black person is inferior to the Arab person. Thus the Arab societies, institutions and leaders in all spheres need to engage in soul searching to uphold the sanctity, dignity and equality of all human beings. In that regard the African Union and African governments must set values and standards in the relationship it builds with other nations and races to ensure that discrimination and violations of the rights and dignity of the African are not tolerated anywhere.


Edi Mass Jobe is the chairman of EM Holdings and until last month the head of Atlas oil company. He studied engineering at the prestigious University of Manchester and later worked for Shell where he became the highest ranked African before leaving to set up Elton Gambia. He is a much sought-after global energy consultant.

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