In the wake of the large number of asylum-seekers entering Europe from the Middle-East and Africa, the majority of political and media attention has been focused on the question of which European countries should be responsible for accommodating these people and in what numbers. The narrow focus of this debate has ignored the root causes of the crisis, causing many to disregard the critical role played by many European States in the creation and continuation of hostilities in these asylum seeker’s countries of origin. Through an examination of this role, it is clear that Europe bares great responsibility for the people reaching its shores and in many ways, can be said to have engineered its own crisis.
The greatest number of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe in recent times have been from Syria and this is the result of a long and bloody civil war between State security forces and armed rebel factions which has ravaged the nation’s civilian population. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2010, several European States have been implicated in the provision of both financial and military assistance to anti-government forces in their attempt to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and crush his supporters. In August 2012 the British Government announced that it would be sending 5 million pounds to opposition groups in Syria to aid them in their military operations. In addition to providing financial assistance to the rebels, the UK has also been involved in the establishment of military camps in neighbouring States Turkey and Jordan where they have been training rebel fighters. As well as the United Kingdom, France have also played an active role in the Syrian civil war. In 2014, French President Francois Hollande revealed that France had directly supplied weapons to opposition groups in Syria. The direct supply of weaponry to the rebels was made possible after the EU voted to lift an arms embargo on Syria which prohibited the exportation of arms directly to rebel militias. European States have also used indirect means to supply weaponry to rebel groups, such as through the trade of arms with Gulf States who have funnelled these weapons to the opposition factions they support. This supply of financial and military assistance to anti-government forces has had the effect of substantially prolonging the life of the Syrian civil war which has led to millions more civilian deaths, internally displaced persons and asylum seekers travelling to neighbouring States and also to Europe to escape the violence.
The second largest number of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe in recent times are reported to be from Afghanistan, another nation which for years has been riven with internal strife and violence. The involvement of European nations in Afghanistan is well documented and dates back to 2001, when in response to the September 11 attacks in the United States, Britain, later joined by NATO forces from Europe invaded and occupied Afghanistan. In 2003, NATO took permanent command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and became embroiled in a bitter war with Taliban rulers for the control of key cities within Afghanistan. 2015 is reported to have been one of the most violent years since the Afghan War began with over 5,000 civilian casualties reported this year so far. The perpetual fighting between Afghan, European and US forces has led to the immense displacement of persons as tens of thousands of civilians have fled, many of them to Europe, in order to escape the increasing violence and unrest in the nation.
Libya also represents a common destination from which many of Europe’s recent asylum-seekers have travelled. Prior to events which culminated in foreign military intervention in 2011, Libya was a relatively stable nation with reportedly one of the highest standards of living on the African continent. Due to its large crude oil reserves, it was also one of the founding member states and key nations within OPEC, the organization of petroleum exporting countries. In 2011, Libya descended into a fierce civil war between the security forces of then President, Muammar Gaddafi and armed rebel militias. Following a call from the United Nations for member states to take all measures to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas…while excluding a foreign occupation force of any kind”, a foreign intervention force led by NATO began to offer military support to the rebels, as well as to carry out airstrikes and naval blockades aimed at weakening the President and his security forces. Thousands of civilians died during this period of bitter fighting between Gaddafi’s security forces and western-backed militias determined to overthrow him. As well as high numbers of civilian deaths, the fighting led to thousands of internally displaced persons and many fled the country, seeking asylum in neighbouring States and the West. The killing of Gaddafi created a power-vacuum in Libya and ferocious internecine warfare ensued between the controversial new government and well-armed militias who refused to disband once the new Libyan government was in power. This has been dubbed by many as Libya’s ‘second-civil war’ and has resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties and displaced persons. In addition to this, since the fall of Gaddafi’s government there have been several reports of systematic, racially motivated murders of black African workers by rebel forces who are reported to operate with impunity in the now lawless country. This ongoing violence has led to thousands of civilians fleeing the country, many of whom have made their way to Europe in order to escape the violence.
The above demonstrates the key role that several European nations have played in the violent conflicts many asylum-seekers now travelling to the continent are risking their lives to escape. This role has been characterised both by the provision of financial and military assistance to various armed factions and by the direct intervention of European forces within these foreign conflicts. Instead of bringing about a swift-resolution to these conflicts, European involvement has had the effect of intensifying and protracting these armed struggles, the result of which has been an even greater exodus of people, many of whom have fled to Europe in search of safety. In many ways therefore, the ‘migrant-crisis’ has been a phenomenon of Europe’s own making and it is clear that as such, European nations should take far more responsibility for these desperate people’s accommodation.
Whenever I hear the term ‘Modern slavery’ used in British media and politics I feel an immediate and acute sense of indignation. Part of this feeling stems from the inaccuracy of the term, the other part derives from what I feel its use is consciously, or subconsciously, trying to accomplish. Regardless of any alleged justifications for it ‘Modern slavery’ is a misnomer, which attempts to deflect attention away from an issue which this country has never properly come to terms with – Britain’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Its usage should stop until this subject has begun to be addressed.
This year, Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act which aims to strengthen efforts to tackle the growing problems of human trafficking and forced labour in the United Kingdom. Whilst the increased efforts to tackle these problems are undoubtedly commendable, the name of the Act is not. Firstly, the term ‘Modern Slavery’ is inaccurate in so far as it seeks to proscribe the same name to two very different phenomena. The Oxford English Dictionary describes slavery in reference to being a slave, and a slave as “a person who is the legal property of another (especially in the past)”. The key word in this definition is ‘legal’, as it underlines the fact that slavery has historically been a system which was supported by a nation’s laws.
There is perhaps no more quintessential example of this State-sponsored system than the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where the British (and other European powers) passed laws for their colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean which recognized slaves as property and protected the rights of masters over their newly acquired ‘property’. As Justice Roger B Taney reminds us in the seminal United States slave case of Dred Scott v Sandford:
“The opinion thus entertained and acted upon in England was naturally impressed upon the colonies they founded on this side of the Atlantic. And, accordingly, a Negro of the African race was regarded by them as an article of property, and held, and bought and sold as such…”
Whilst forced labour does describe a system where a person is forced to work for another for free, unlike slavery, it is seldom endorsed by the nation in which it takes places and is infact recognized as a crime in virtually every nation in the world except for as part of military service or as a punishment for certain offences. This is not to say that human trafficking and forced labour are not abhorrent crimes, only that they are fundamentally different to slavery.
Some may point to the word “Modern” as differentiating the concepts, however this argument is unpersuasive. The addition of the adjective ‘Modern’ seems to suggest either that it is the exact same practice, just carried out contemporarily, or that the forced labour on the rise today is in some way equivalent to the slave trade. Neither of these denotations are acceptable, as nothing about human trafficking and forced labour equals, or even mildly resembles, the State-sanctioned, State-funded and State-legitimized institution of Slavery which, in the case of the Transatlantic Slave trade, uprooted millions from their homes and sold them into perpetual bondage. The profits from this wicked trade helped shape and mould many of the advanced western nations of today and was particularly important to the development of Britain, who used the profits from its domination of the slave trade to fuel its industrial development.
The second issue that I have with the term ‘Modern Slavery’ concerns what I believe its use is trying either advertently, or inadvertently to accomplish. The Transatlantic Slave trade is not only one of the most harrowing examples of mass suffering and exploitation in human history, but also remains one of the most poorly remembered and redressed. Whilst the Church of England issued a formal apology in 2006 for its role in Slave trade, the British Government has never issued an apology for the part it played and consistently expressed its reluctance to even engage in dialogue with those looking to exhume the remains of our nation’s role in the trade. Ironically, the last time Parliament passed an act with ‘Slavery’ in its title was the Slavery Abolition Act (1833). This act, whilst finally abolishing the Slavery that the British Empire had helped establish and maintain for 400 years, provided for vast sums of compensation to be paid to slave-owners who, as a result of abolition, would be losing their ‘human property’. Slaves on the other hand, were given nothing and these decisions laid the foundations for the social and economic inequality which still plague many Caribbean nations and peoples of Caribbean descent today.
It is astonishing that whilst our Government are not even prepared to engage in the topic of their historical role in the Slave Trade which affected so many and continues to do so today, the word is permitted to be banded around in the political sphere and even given to an Act of Parliament describing what are in essence very different crimes. This is deeply insulting to those still living with the gross inequalities that slavery gave rise to and one cannot but get the impression that it is as if by using the term ‘Modern Slavery’ certain factions are attempting to erase the memory of Britain’s role in one of the clearest examples of Slavery that ever existed, The Transatlantic Slave trade.
As the dust settles on the spectacle of Sochi and Brazil goes into overdrive for its preparations in the build up to this year’s Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the spotlight is now beginning to shine on another nation which has its sights firmly set on international glory for 2022. This nation is the Arab Emirate of Qatar, which has embarked on a policy of aggressive expansion and rapid infrastructural development in the run up to the olympic games. Qatar, one of the wealthiest states per capita in the world, is so far estimated to have invested a staggering ($)200bn into construction and infrastructure projects for the event and whilst it is without doubt that a large part of this capital has been raised by profits from the countries main export commodities, gas and oil, the nation’s finances have also been been bolstered in recent years by a multitude of investments into several Western nations and corporations . Qatari investments in the West have not been entirely one sided however; many western nations and corporations have also sought to improve relations and increase trade with Qatar with the nations low rates of tax being a major pull factor. The reciprocal investments between Qatar and the West have increased dramtically in recent years and it is predictied that they will increase yet further in the years leading up to 2022, as states and corporations seek to cash-in on the revenue sure to be generated by the first World Cup to be held in the Arab World.
It is not just the opression of homosexuals in Qatar which seems to have evaded the criticism of many Western Governments and corporations however. Recently, Google announced that it would be investing a reported ($)14 million into the East-African State of Uganda in efforts to capitalize on increasing internet usage within the country . Whilst this announcement has been praised by some as a means of promoting growth through enhancing the technological capabilities of the nation, for many, there has nevertheless been dissapointment that Google, who took such an active stand against the mistreatment of homosexuals in Russia, seem to have been entirely reticent on the grave repression of homosexuals within Uganda. On the 24 February 2014, Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni gave assent to what is termed the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Act’ The stated purpose of this act is to “prohibit any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; prohibit the promotion or recognition of such relations and to provide for other related matters.”Whilst Provisions proscribing the death penalty for certain homosexual offences were dropped from the Bill just prior to its enactment, the legislation nevertheless imposes a 14 year prison sentence for homosexual acts and a life sentence for anyone found guilty of what is termed “aggravated homosexuality.” Upon its enactment the law caused a storm of controversy with several organizations and prominent figures issuing statements excoriating the Ugandan legislative for passing it, however there has to date been no official response to the legislation from Google, who continue to push ahead with investment plans within the nation.
In addition to Google’s investments in Uganda, The Coca-Cola Company have recently sought to increase trade with Ethiopia and have made a ($)20 million investment into a new glass bottling factory in one of the nation’s most rural regions. LGBT rights in Ethiopia are notoriously scarce and Like in Qatar and Uganda, homosexual Acts are expressly criminalised under Ethiopian Law. At a national conference in June 2012, a host of Ethiopian government officials, civil representatives and religious leaders congregated to formally declare their opposition to LGBT rights and reportedly condemned homosexuality as a “Western epidemic”. Despite Ethiopia’s stance on homosexuality, Coca Cola have issued no statements nor produced any similar advertisements aimed at criticizing the the nation.
The claims In Re South Africa Apartheid litigation arose in 2002 following the alleged involvement of 5 major multinational corporations in gross Human Rights violations during the Apartheid era in South Africa. Mr Ntsebeza, a black South African national, along with a host of other claimants brought a class-action lawsuit in the United States alleging that Ford, Barclays, IBM, General Motors and German automotive manufacturer Daimler GM not only knowingly conducted business in South Africa during the apartheid regime, but worse, that they provided direct assistance to and acted in accordance with the South African government and security forces during their brutal oppression of blacks and other minorities over the course of Apartheid.
The claimants alleged that Ford, General Motors and Daimler GM manufactured vehicles which were used by the South African security forces to violently suppress opposition to apartheid and inflict wide spread atrocities amongst the black civilian population. These companies, who owned a multitude of factories and plants in South Africa during Apartheid, were also accused of callously retaliating against employees who were found to be participating in the anti-apartheid movement, through such means as, unfair dismissals, intimidation and even assisting with unlawful detentions and torture in collaboration with the apartheid authorities. The corporations were also accused of providing de facto support to the apartheid regime by implementing segregation within their own facilities and grossly underpaying blacks for equal work.
IBM were accused of actively assisting the Apartheid state by producing race-based identification documents which were used by the authorities to greatly restrict the movement of blacks around South Africa. These documents also allowed the authorities to implement a meticulous geographic separation of the races, whereby blacks were forced into remote and dilapidated shanty towns known as ‘Bantustans’ and obligated to live there as ‘Bantus’ deprived entirely of South African nationality and any of the corresponding rights of such citizenship.
Barclays were accused of participating and assisting in the geographic separation of the races by refusing black employees the opportunity to work in, or be transferred to branches in predominantly white areas. This practice was not mandatory under South African law at the time and thus Barclays were accused, of providing de facto support to the apartheid regime through the implementation of such policies.
The Defendant companies rejected the legal culpability for their actions but never denied their involvement in apartheid in the ways advanced by the claimants.
Claims in United States
As the Republic of South Africa was originally opposed to the litigation, the claimants elected to bring their action in the United States, alleging that the corporations concerned had all aided and abetted gross human rights violations, which was an actionable offence under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) . The ATS is an old piece of US legislation which grants United States courts original jurisdiction over ‘any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States‘. In other words, the ATS potentially allows for a foreign claimant (a non-national and non-resident of the US) to sue a foreign defendant (also a non-national and non-resident of the US) in a United States court for gross Human Rights violations, irrespective of where these violations occurred. The ATS has been instrumental in allowing many individuals whose human rights have been violated but whom, for a variety of reasons, were not able to obtain any redress in the place where these abuses occurred, to recover damages by bringing claims in the United States.
The District Court dismissed the claims in 2004, holding that aiding and abetting was not a viable cause of action under the ATS. In 2007, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the decision of the lower court, holding that aiding and abetting was actionable under the ATS and remanded the case back to the District Court for further hearing. The defendant companies then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, asking the Court to rule definitively on the issue.
Lack of Quorum in the Supreme Court
In an extraordinary turn of events, the Supreme Court declared that it would not be able to hear the appeal, due to the fact that 4 of the 9 Justices on the Court had to withdraw from proceedings based on their financial and personal interests in the companies involved. The Court thus lacked the required Quorum (6 Justices) it needed to hear a case and was subsequently forced to affirm the ruling of the Second Circuit Court of Appeal without declaring it binding precedent. The claims against the corporations were thus able to proceed.
Impact of Kiobel v Shell
On 17 April 2013 the Supreme Court handed down its judgement in the eagerly anticipated case of Kiobel v Shell. This was a case concerning a number of Nigerian nationals, who were suing the Anglo-Dutch company Shell for its alleged complicity in torture, rape and the extra-judicial killing of activists in the Ogoni region of Nigeria. The claimants could not bring the claims in Nigeria, because they feared reprisals from powerful elements within the Nigerian Government and military, who they claim had been heavily involved in the abuses. For this reason they too, like the claimants in the In Re Apartheid cases, sought to rely on the ATS to bring their claims against Shell in the United States.
The central questions for the judges in Kiobel were whether or not:
1. The ATS applied extra-territorially to foreign defendants operating outside the US.
2. Corporations could be sued for violations of International Law.
The Court considered that the issue of paramount importance was the primary question and so re-heard the case based on this question alone.
In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that there was no definitive proof that the ATS was ever enacted to allow foreign claimants to sue foreign defendants in US courts for harms that occurred outside of the US. The decision of the judges was very much alive to the diplomatic burdens that it would place on the United States to allow harms occurring in other people’s countries to be brought before their Courts. For some, the ruling was a victory for US foreign relations but for others, particularly those who have pushed for the universal enforceability of human rights norms, the decision was a major setback which could ultimately provide carte blanche for corporations to continue to commit human rights violations abroad whilst providing no redress to victims.
The Kiobel decision has had a dramatic impact on the ensuing success of the claims in the In Re Apartheid litigation. In August 2013 The Second Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case back down to the lower courts suggesting that the claims be dismissed in light of the Kiobel ruling. General Motors reached an earlier settlement with the plaintiffs, however, on 26 December 2013 the court of first instance held that, the claims against Daimler did not ‘touch and concern’ the US with sufficient force to rebut the presumption against extraterritoriality applied in Kiobel and thus had to be dismissed. The claims against IBM and Ford, the two remaining plaintiffs, were however not dismissed. The court instead asked the parties to produce briefs on the question of whether corporations may be liable for breaches of International Law – which was the original, unanswered question in the Kiobel v Shell case. This leaves open the possibility for corporate liability for human rights violations abroad, however, whether or not other courts and perhaps ultimately the Supreme Court, will answer this question in the affirmative remains to be seen.