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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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The links between slavery, poverty and development

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

At a conference organised by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development Meg gave the following speech.


I am very pleased to be here today, not least because I have been closely involved since early 2006 in the Government strategy to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.


At the beginning of this year, when commemorations began, I was a Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government.  This role gave me the chance to engage with local stakeholders across the UK and to support a range of events to mark the bicentenary in a way that was meaningful to local communities.  We began the year with a focus on awareness raising of the bicentenary, of the transatlantic slave trade and of Britain’s role in both the trade and its abolition.   We went on to commemorate those who suffered, those who struggled to put an end to the slave trade and those who worked to ensure that new laws were enforced. 


In many cases these initiatives leave a lasting memorial Museums in Hull and Liverpool serves as permanent reminders.  And the National Education Project will permanently embed teaching about the slave trade into the national curriculum and provide resources for teachers and students to use the history and legacy of slavery as a tool to promote respect amongst the young generation for those of different races.  


My move to the Foreign Office this summer was timely in that the Government’s strategy had reached the third area of work identified for the bicentenary - that of legacy.  From “Reflecting on the Past” the time had come to “look to the future”.  The focus now is to concentrate on ways to address both the discrimination that exists within our own communities we know that individuals of African and Caribbean origin are still affected by racial discrimination in UK 200 years after the slave trade was abolished. And, from the perspective of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, we are focussing on the wider issues of poverty and inequality in the developing world and the various forms of contemporary slavery that are sadly still endemic across the globe.  


Two hundred years ago, people from all sectors of society - black and white, rich and poor, Quakers and Christians, men and women, those who enjoyed freedom, and those who were in chains, demanded an end to what we now recognise as one of the most shameful and barbaric periods in history.  


Of course, slavery existed long before the Europeans traded in people to further their empires.  But the transatlantic slave trade was unique in terms of its scale and its impact.   Over 12 million men, women and children were transported and over 2 million of those died en route to North America and Caribbean.  This so-called “middle passage” is described compellingly by Olaudah Equiano who saw the squalor and brutality at first hand.


We read these accounts and are horrified and ashamed that our ancestors could have inflicted such misery on such a large proportion of the human race.  How, we ask ourselves, could anyone have stood by and let this happen for so long? 


But 200 years on, millions of people are still living in modern day forms of slavery.   Bonded labourers, descent based labourers, child labourers, of whom the International Labour Organisation estimate there are nearly 200 million world-wide, children who have been conscripted into military activity, women and children who have been forced into prostitution, people who have fallen victim to people traffickers. Millions of people still waiting for their freedom.


Many of these injustices are caused or made worse by poverty.  One in five people in the world today live on less than one dollar a day.  Millions of people have no access to clean water, basic sanitation or food, let alone education or the prospect of earning a fair wage. 


If we are to stop people becoming modern day slaves, one way of doing so is to step up our efforts to address the wider issues of global poverty and lack of access to education and opportunity. We need to make to make poverty history.


I know that the International Labour Organisation is making its own contribution to the achieving the Millennium Development Goals by promoting a Global Alliance against Forced Labour by 2015.  We share the same objectives, now we must work together to target our efforts most effectively.


Although the International Labour Organisation recognises that human trafficking by groups of organised criminals represents only one part of modern day slavery, it estimates that nearly two and a half million people have fallen victim to this cruel, degrading and highly lucrative trade in human beings.


Whether people are coerced into forced labour as they seek to escape poverty, or born into an outdated feudal system which leaves them destined to a life of servitude, they will be unable, or too afraid, to leave, are likely to be poor, vulnerable and desperately frightened to ask for help.  The people who exploit them will make sure that they stay that way. 


When I was Minister for Women and Equality I was part of the Government’s work on human trafficking this included women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation but the problem doesn’t stop there.  The trafficking of men and women and children for forced labour is also a big problem. We must tackle the problem in source countries. 


I know that the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development have been closely involved in capacity building with source and transit countries and with awareness raising programmes. The Department for International Development funds projects worth over 14 million to address people trafficking, working with non governmental organisations and international agencies to inform people, particularly women in South East Asia, about the dangers.


This kind of integrated approach to modern day slavery and human rights abuses must be the way forward.


The Foreign Office’s Human Rights, Democracy and Governance Group is well placed to engage with multi-lateral organisations to pursue our human rights objectives.  We work through the United Nations the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the International Labour Organisation to pursue our goals. We have had a particular success within the last few weeks with the UN Human Rights Council agreeing to establish a Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Slavery.  This was at UK initiative and is a timely achievement in this bicentenary year. 


There is much that we can achieve through traditional diplomacy.  The Foreign Office can use our influence and our network of staff who are well placed to lobby overseas governments to ratify the UN human rights treaties and to implement core labour standards.   And we recognise that children are particularly vulnerable.  So the Foreign Office’s new Child Rights Strategy includes as an objective, the increased ratification and implementation of international instruments pertaining to children, including the ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour.


But there is a limit to what the Foreign Office can do on its own.


This morning’s conference will focus on the links between slavery, poverty and social exclusion, and will seek to identify specific actions that the organisations represented here today can take, individually and collectively to work to reduce, and eventually to eliminate, slavery.


There is no doubting the appalling suffering that the eighteenth century slave trade brought upon so many. Our task is to learn lessons from this period in our history and find ways of working together.  The abolitionists proved what can be done when all sectors of society come together and demand an end to injustice and human suffering.


Today the world is rich in skills and resources.  Though we may not know the scale of the problem of contemporary slavery, it is enough to know that it exists. I look forward to hearing your conclusions and points for follow up. 

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