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Sight Magazine – Essay: Slavery and war are closely linked – but we had no idea how much until we analyzed the data

Some 40 million people are enslaved around the world today, although estimates vary. Modern slavery takes many different forms, including child soldiers, sex trafficking and forced labor, and no country is immune. From cases of family controlled sex trafficking in the USA to the enslavement of fishermen in the seafood industry in Southeast Asia and forced labor in the global electronics supply chain, slavery knows no bounds.

As scholars of modern slaverywe search to understand how and why human beings are still bought, possessed and sold in the 21st century, in the hope of developing policies to eradicate these crimes.

ILLUSTRATION: BeritK/iStockphoto.

Many answers go back to causes such as poverty, corruption and inequality. But they also stem from something less discussed: war.

In 2016, the United Nations Security Council called modern slavery a serious concern in areas affected by armed conflict. But researchers still know little about the details of the intertwining of slavery and warfare.

“What we found was staggering: the vast majority of armed conflicts between 1989 and 2016 used some form of slavery.”

We recently published research analyze data on armed conflicts around the world to better understand this relationship.

What we discovered was staggering: the vast majority of armed conflicts between 1989 and 2016 involved some kind of slavery.

Coding conflict
We used data from an established war database, the Uppsala Conflict Data Programto see to what extent and in what ways armed conflicts intersect with the different forms of contemporary slavery.

Our project was inspired by two great scholars sexual violence, Dara Kay Cohen and Ragnhild Nordas. These political scientists used this database to produce their own pioneering database about how rape is used as a weapon of war.

The Uppsala database divides each conflict into two parts. Side A represents a nation-state and side B is usually one or more non-state actors, such as rebel groups or insurgents.

Using this data, our research team looked at cases of different forms of slavery, including sex trafficking and forced marriage, child soldiers, forced labor, and human trafficking in general. This analysis included information on 171 different armed conflicts. Because the use of slavery changes over time, we divided multi-year conflicts into separate “conflict years” to study them one year at a time, for a total of 1,113 separate cases.

Coding each case to determine what forms of slavery were used, if any, was a challenge. We compared information from a variety of sources, including human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, academic reports, journalist reports, and documents from governmental and intergovernmental organizations.

Alarming figures
In our recently published analysis, we found that contemporary slavery is a regular feature of armed conflict. Of the 1,113 cases we analyzed, 87% involved child soldiers – that is, combatants aged 15 and under, 34% included sexual exploitation and forced marriage, around 24% included forced labor and nearly 17% included human trafficking.

A global heatmap of the frequency of these armed conflicts over time paints a sobering picture. Most conflicts involving slavery take place in low-income countries, often referred to as the Global South.

About 12% of conflicts involving some form of slavery took place in India, where there are several conflicts between government and non-state actors. Teenage activists are involved in conflicts such as Kashmir uprising and the separatist movement in Assam. About eight percent of cases have been in Myanmar, five percent in Ethiopia, five percent in the Philippines, and about three percent in Afghanistan, Sudan, Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, Algeria and Iraq.

This evidence of slavery primarily in the Global South is perhaps unsurprising, given how much poverty and inequality can fuel instability and conflict. However, it does help us think about how these countries’ historical, economic, and geopolitical relationships with the Global North also fuel pressure and violence, a theme we hope slavery scholars can explore at the coming.

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Strategic enslavement
Typically, when an armed conflict involves slavery, it is used for tactical purposes: making weapons, for example, or building roads and other infrastructure projects to wage war. But sometimes slavery is used strategically, as part of an overall strategy. During the Holocaust, the Nazis used “strategic slavery” in what they called “extermination through labor.” Today, as in the past, strategic slavery is normally part of a larger strategy of genocide.

We found that “strategic servoing” occurred in approximately 17% of cases. In other words, enslavement was a primary goal in about 17% of the conflicts we examined and often served the purpose of genocide. An example is Islamic State subjugation of the Yazidi minority during the 2014 massacre in Sinjar, Iraq. In addition to killing Yazidis, the Islamic State sought to enslave and impregnate women for systematic ethnic cleansing, attempting to eliminate the ethnic identity of Yazidis through forced rape.

The links between slavery and conflict are vicious but still poorly understood. Our next steps include coding historical cases of slavery and conflicts dating back to World War II, such as how nazi germany used forced labor and how the Imperial Japanese Army used sexual bondage. We released a new dataset, “Contemporary slavery in armed conflictsand I hope other researchers will also use it to better understand and prevent future violence.The conversation

Monti Datta is associate professor of political science at University of Richmond; Angharad blacksmith is responsible for the modern slavery program at United Nations Universityand Kevin Ballsis Professor of Contemporary Slavery and Research Director of the Rights Lab at University of Nottingham. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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