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Success Against Slavery: Strategies for the Future & Promising Practices in International Programming

Blair Burns, International Justice Mission
Remarks at the Roundtable Hosted by the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives and the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Washington, DC
October 28, 2008

Good afternoon, I am pleased to be with you today, to give voice to the importance of faith-based institutions in the fight against one of the most pressing issues of our day – modern-day slavery.

I represent International Justice Mission – IJM is a Christian human rights agency that seeks to protect people from violent forces of injustice by providing rescue and restoration for victims and ensuring that public justice systems work for the poor. I have been asked to explain how IJM is going about bringing an end to slavery around the world – with a concentration on our India project areas.

Roughly 350 IJM staff members – eighty percent of them nationals – do that difficult and rewarding work in fourteen field offices throughout the world. In India, we have four offices and 108 staff members, ninety-eight of whom are Indian citizens. Our largest field office is in Chennai – here is a picture of our Chennai staff.

At independence, the people of India declared that slavery, in all its forms, would stand abolished in the new republic. Nevertheless, despite clear and strong criminal laws against it, in 2008 slavery remains rampant throughout India. Most credible reports on the prevalence of slavery in India place the number of slaves in the millions.

Why does slavery still exist in India and elsewhere when it is against the law?

To answer that question, we must first discuss what slavery really is. Slavery, or forced labor, is one person using violent force or the threat of violent force to compel the work of another. The decision to use slavery is essentially a business decision. Slave labor allows the slave owner to cut back on his labor costs, which in turn increases his profit. Thus, slavery is, at its core, a simple business decision.

Slavery exists where it is against the law because the public justice system is broken and thereby fails to change the calculus of this business decision. At IJM we proceed under the theory that if the public justice system provides a consistent and predictable deterrent to the crime of slavery, the business calculus to hold slaves will be forever altered – it will become irrational for business people to engage in slavery. While all crimes cannot be fully eradicated by the public justice system making them irrational, slavery can. Simply because, despite its horrific and demeaning brutality, slavery begins, and thus will ultimately end as a business decision.

“Upstanding” business people are not so unwise as to place the desire for the gain of small additional profits above the very real risk of going to jail.

For slavery to end, all that must happen is for the costs to outweigh the benefits.

Proceeding under this theory, IJM employs a four-fold strategy.

First, we work with local magistrates to rescue individual victims of slavery. These magistrates are charged by the people of India with the duty of eradicating slavery in their districts. We gather evidence, identify the slaves and their owners, and assist the magistrate in his sworn duty to rescue. In India IJM has effected the official release of 1,316 slaves.

We then work closely with the government to provide restoration to the rescued victims, so that they will have success in their freedom and never again be exploited by the slave owning class. The journey from slavery to freedom is not an easy one, and our aftercare teams ensure that the rescued victims have what they need to make it. IJM’s transitional aftercare program begins with the provision of short term needs, such as food and shelter for the night and continues for two years with the provision of long term rehabilitation, such as the means to earn a living as free citizens, life skills training and formal education for children who would otherwise enter adulthood uneducated.

Third . . . and this is critical, we assist government prosecutors and police in making sure that slave owners pay for their crimes, as mandated by Indian law. We work closely with the police as they file complaints, gather evidence and submit their charges to the court. We then aid the assigned prosecutors by preparing witnesses for testimony, drafting written motions and arguments and vigorously advocating that the cases move quickly through the traditionally slow justice system.

And finally, we seek to bring about structural transformation, such that the public justice system, on its own, will work, as it must – by providing consistent and predictable deterrent against slavery. After pushing slavery cases through the system for seven years in India, we have gained understanding of the specific impediments to the functioning of the public justice system.

These impediments can be generally summed up in two categories: (1) a lack of will on the part of government officials to proactively find and rescue slaves and to prosecute their owners, and (2) a lack of capacity within the government to effect releases and prosecute these cases. We are now in the process of designing programs that will specifically challenge these impediments so that the public justice system can begin to function as it was meant to do . . . and as it must do.

This fourfold strategy will work because it changes the calculus of the business decision to hold slaves. It increases the cost beyond that which the slave owner is willing to pay, which ironically, is his own freedom.

While slavery begins as a business decision and while it will ultimately end as one, it is currently allowed to end as something else.


You see, a person was never meant to own another person. And thus, what has begun as the business expedient of ownership for profit, currently ends as something far more sinister. The business of slavery often ends with the loss of an entire lifetime, as it did for Narcoloppa, who was sold into slavery with his parents in the 1940’s and was not released until 2003. The business of slavery almost always ends with the loss of dignity, as it did for Valan who could not protect his beautiful four-year old daughter Devi as she was forced to work for his owner every single day. The business of slavery often ends in brutal and gratuitous torture as it did for Jevesh, who could not walk when we came to rescue him because his owner had, simply for his own pleasure, repeatedly stabbed Jevesh in the legs with a needle like this one [hold up needle]. The business of slavery often ends in unrelenting gang rapes, as it did for Mariamma who was carried away several nights a week by her owner to his personal temple to be ravaged by all of his friends.

But most disturbingly, the business of slavery often never ends at all.

But . . . .slavery can and will end in India, as it has ended in every single country where it has been consistently and boldly challenged. It is an institution which cannot and will not survive in the face of focused resolve to bring about its end.

Thank you.


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