Slavery is an economic problem as much as it’s a human rights one. Prosecuting slave owners and consistently enforcing existing laws lead slave owners to consider the benefits and costs of using illegal slave labor. When business interests are at stake and prosecution is likely, then slave owners begin to understand that they will be held accountable.
The final country to abolish slavery was Mauritania in 1981. That’s almost 120 years after the 13th amendment abolished chattel slavery in the United States. On top of that, it took until 2007 for the country to criminalize slavery – a 26 year wait for a law that would punish those enslaving others.
Even worse? Mauritania has only prosecuted one person for the crime, despite the fact that up to 20% of its people are enslaved.
Prosecution is critical to abolition work. Until law enforcement in every single country enforces the laws on its books, slave owners will see slavery as a low-risk, high reward enterprise. In many countries today, owning slaves generates a large profit. Additionally, there’s very little risk of ever getting caught much less punished.
Prosecution is also about justice. Justice is a concept of ethical or moral rightness, and when perpetrators are prosecuted, former slaves have an opportunity to achieve justice.
Sometimes, former slaves confront their slave owners during this process and see laws enforced and punishments applied. In addition to making the institution riskier, prosecution for crimes of trafficking or forced labor can provide a moment of healing for survivors. In other instances, formerly enslaved individuals fear retribution against their families or cannot appear in court. In order to alter this, more prosecutions are necessary – showing former slaves that it matters and that real punishments will be enacted against their former aggressors.
Prosecution is closely linked to other forms of abolition. Many organizations working in prosecution efforts also assist with rescue operations. Of course, those assisting with prosecution efforts in various communities are also involved in policy making. Since they work with the enforcement of laws, they often desire to see additional laws in place in order to more effectively prosecute offenders.
Prosecution turns the tables and makes slavery a high-risk activity. Some of the activities related to this form of abolition include