That slavery has existed in Sudan as a result of the 15-year civil war is neither news nor particularly shocking. However, a sudden flurry of articles about the growing practice of “freeing” slaves has appeared in media publications, from Newsweek to the New York Times. This practice, while supported with good intentions and millions of dollars, is both counterproductive and unethical.
The slave trade dates back to the early ’90s, when Muslim Arabs controlling the capital and most of the country began capturing black Christians fighting in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Soon the Arabs began raiding the villages and homes of the southern based rebel army, taking the families of the men who were fighting into bondage. Today Arab middlemen journey north to re-steal these slaves and bring them south, where they are sold for typically $50 each.
This selling of slaves becomes “liberating” the slaves primarily because it is a human-rights organization, Christian Solidarity International (CSI), that is paying the Arab middlemen and then releasing the slaves to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. CSI and other anti-slavery groups, including ones in the United States, believe that they have a moral obligation to “redeem” these slaves, and have claimed that they have paid for over 8,000 slaves in the last four years.
The real controversy has erupted because UNICEF and the United Nations have criticized this practice as both immoral and fundamentally mistaken. While CSI is correct that there exists a moral obligation to stop slavery, UNICEF is clearly correct in its criticism of the CSI and similar operations. By purchasing these slaves, albeit for the purpose of freeing them, CSI is only providing economic incentives, both to the Arab middlemen and indirectly to those Arabs enslaving innocent civilians, to continue such practices. At $50 a head, a price which has not changed since CSI began funding such operations, one can easily see that CSI alone has paid the Arab middlemen $400,000. In a country where one American dollar equals Â£1,000 Sudanese, it is clear that the slave trade has economic benefits for the Arab middlemen, who are even suspected of selling bogus slaves to make more money.
In America’s commitment never to pay terrorists arms in exchange for hostages, one can see that preventing the subsidization of an illegal and immoral practice is a good idea. Paying not only supports the slave trade, but it also does nothing to decrease the risk of slaves being taken again. The very notion of paying someone for freedom is unethical, as freedom is not something that can be bought or sold. Slavery cannot be defeated by acknowledging its legitimacy, especially through money, and should only be answered through force and the protection of the helpless.
A more productive and ethical policy should concentrate on the notion that liberty is something for which one would die rather than pay. Instead of paying nearly half a million dollars for little if any results, the CSI could pressure the international community and the U.N. to intervene in the ongoing civil war. Clearly, as long as the civil war provides incentives for the northerners to steal and enslave their southern neighbors, slavery will find a way to thrive. Only a brokered peace agreement and the rebuilding of a democratic Sudan can finally eliminate slavery. It is not an easy goal, but it is one that is both practical and morally satisfying. While all the humanitarians in the world could pour money into purchasing slaves, no long-term goals could possibly be met through this poorly conceived method of purchasing freedom. Some form of increased intervention is the only viable solution to the evils being committed in Sudan.