Politics & Policy

Backward Thinking

Abolition, then and now.

London – In anticipation of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, London Mayor Ken Livingstone has demanded that the British government apologize for its role in this international atrocity. He joins others who decry the use of “weasel words” in a “squalid” attempt to evade an apology, which “demeans our country” in the eyes of world opinion. Writing last week in the Guardian, he invites all Londoners to join him in “formally apologizing” for the city’s responsibility in perpetuating the slave trade.

Although the impulse to condemn the degradation of slavery is surely a good one, the moral vacuousness of this appeal blinds its advocates to the lessons of abolition — and the urgency to combat contemporary forms of slavery and other human rights abuses.

Politicized “apologies” may serve partisan purposes, but they make no moral sense. Each generation is responsible for its own transgressions; as the Scripture says, children are not liable for the sins of their fathers. Neither does contrition of this sort make any cultural sense. London is a thoroughly cosmopolitan city: People from all over the world reside here, many of whom have absolutely no historical connection to slavery.

Livingstone’s revisionism is equally risible. He denies that political leaders such as William Wilberforce — driven by their profound sense of Christian obligation — played a significant role in banishing slavery from the Commonwealth. As the mayor puts it: “It was black resistance and economic development that destroyed slavery.” It is certainly true that black campaigners such as Olaudah Equiano and many courageous slaves played a part. Wilberforce by no means acted alone. But we mustn’t deny that he used his position in Parliament to launch a sustained political campaign with great courage and, ultimately, to great effect.

The deepest problem with Livingstone’s appeal, though, is that it distracts us from the scandal of modern slavery. The sexual trafficking of women and young girls is an international epidemic. A multibillion-dollar industry, it degrades and forces into bondage millions of human beings — from Nepal to the Netherlands. It is estimated that two million people are trafficked each year and that, ironically, about 450,000 come from Africa.

The U.S. State Department believes that about 20,000 sex-trade victims cross America’s borders every year, while the British Home Office reports that several thousand women are trafficked into the U.K. Advocacy groups suspect that an equal number of children are similarly exploited here — many in London — as prostitutes, child labor, or for criminal gangs. Strangely, Livingstone has failed to muster an ounce of indignation against the enslavement of women and children in his own city.

The apology crowd might learn from those in the trenches of the modern fight against slavery and other assaults on human dignity. Groups such as the Salvation Army and International Justice Mission go into harm’s way to rescue women and girls in desperate and horrid situations. Inspired by the example of Wilberforce, they lobby politicians, advocate for victims in court, and find them safe houses and steady employment.

Other organizations, many of them faith-based, work tirelessly to defend vulnerable populations from ethnic cleansing and genocide. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, for example, has campaigned for many years for the ethnic minorities in Burma, who face a catalog of terror at the hands of the military regime — systematic rape and sexual slavery, forced labor, and the forcible conscription of child soldiers, all forms of modern-day slavery, as well as the destruction of thousands of villages, the displacement of millions of people, the use of human minesweepers, torture, and killings.

The international slave trade is one of the enduring stains on the Anglo-American conscience. But its abolition was one of the great achievements of Great Britain. Indeed, the doggedness and ultimate triumph of Wilberforce inspired America’s Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln — who could claim that Wilberforce’s example was known “to every school boy” in America.

Sometimes the first obligation of statesmen is to remember: The attempt to politicize or marginalize Wilberforce’s legacy is not merely a descent into dishonesty. It reeks as a truly demeaning and squalid act — and, like Livingstone’s apology, offers nothing of value to our neighbors in need.

Benedict Rogers is a human-rights activist and journalist and serves as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and served as a human-rights expert for the Congressional Task Force on the United Nations.

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