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RI BOARD'S RESPONSE TO NORWICH ROTARY'S CHILD SLAVERY MEMORIAL –JANUARY 2009
"Whether or not the ethical climate in business is higher or lower today, each of us has an opportunity to speak up for higher standards. And for each person willing to voice his conviction, there are others who are willing to follow and be influenced by that kind of leadership"
(A Call to Leadership - RI President Robert A Manchester – the Rotarian Nov 1976)
Rotarians today have an opportunity to speak up for higher standards and to take action against a huge and deplorable practice that still exists and continues to grow: Child Slavery. Despite laws in every country of the world, millions of children are working without pay, unable to leave their captors and controlled by violence or the threat of violence. Whilst Rotarians free children from the threat of polio, increase their education, health and well-being, we can also free them from the bonds of slavery.
We can achieve this by openly condemning practices of slavery and by supporting the work of anti-slavery organisations. We can ensure that we as Rotarians are setting an example by following the laws of our own countries with respect to the abolition of slavery. We can influence others with the same leadership skills that Rotarians have used for more than 100 years to uplift the human condition.
The Board members of Rotary International had an opportunity in November 2007 to speak/stand up for and encourage higher standards amongst its members, when it considered a Child Slavery Motion referred to it from the April 2007 Council on Legislation and then again in January 2009 when it considered a Memorial (Motion) on "Child Slavery" submitted by the Rotary Clubs of Norwich and Norwich St Edmund, England. It saddens me that the Board has adopted only a part of this motion, rather than to step up as world leaders in the fight against this atrocity.
"Child slavery" is often confused with "child labour" or "child exploitation" It is a fact of life that there are millions of children all over the world who are working in places like food stalls, hotels & restaurants or as domestic servants because they may be the only bread winners in their family. But for these unfortunates at least they have a choice, albeit a very difficult one, to work or not to work, to leave or not to leave. A child who is a slave, has no choice. A slave is someone who is "unpaid, unable to leave and is controlled by violence or the threat of violence".
Slavery is illegal in every country in the world yet there are more slaves now then ever before.- an estimated 27 million. That's more than twice the number of people taken out of Africa during the 400 years of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the numbers are growing because of corruption, custom, criminality, poverty and man's greed for cheaper and cheaper goods. The majority of these slaves are children who are increasingly being exploited by unscrupulous land, factory and plantation owners. In some cases these children are lured away from their parents by contractors on the pretext that the children will receive a good education, learn some skills and subsequently help to improve the economic conditions of their own family. But in many instances, the children are hoodwinked or stolen from their parents, imprisoned in atrocious living and working conditions and beaten if they do not match their owner's own standards of work.
Slavery therefore is big business in many parts of the world including Europe, USA and England but especially in many of the countries of Africa and Asia. There are many examples of urban economies that are now being built on the use of forced child labour just as the economies of Great Britain and the USA were reliant upon the use of African slaves in the past. In such circumstances is it not possible that there may be Rotarians who are slave holders or who are involved directly or indirectly with slave produced goods ?
Against such a possible background of a violation of human rights and remembering RI President DK Lee's exhortations to "Make Dreams Real" for the protection of the world's children, the Norwich Memorial on Child Slavery asked the RI Board to
a) amend RI's Code of Policies to include the words "and slavery" after "freedom from abuse and violence"
b) remind members of their ethical responsibilities under Part 2 of the Objects of Rotary and Article 42 of RI's Code of Policies which commits each Rotary Club to protect the rights of all vulnerable children who are entitled to "food, shelter, health care, education and freedom from abuse and violence"
c) exhort Clubs to exclude any member who is found to be involved with any person or business that makes use of forced labour, and
d) encourage Clubs to support organisations whose mission is the elimination of slavery by means of persuasion & action.
At its recent meeting, the RI Board, agreed to amend the RI Code of Policies to include the words "and slavery" but did not accept the other three Norwich requests. The Board's reasoning behind the rejections is set out in its official letter to the Norwich Rotary Clubs and those reasons are highlighted below in bold letters
The Board did not feel that it was appropriate to issue a statement reminding Rotarians of their ethical responsibilities, as it believes that "these responsibilities are inherent to Rotary club membership and should not need a special resolution from RI" Yet Rotarians have other responsibilities which are inherent in Rotary club membership but the Board still sees fit to issue Position Statement from time to time on a whole range of issues such as Hunger & Malnutrition, Population Growth & Sustainable Development.
The Board did not agree to exhort Clubs to exclude any member who is found to be involved with any person or business that makes use of forced labour. On this issue the Board felt that "the lack of a written policy against a practice does not equate to an endorsement of the practice". The letter went on to state that "there are many repugnant things in this world that would disqualify someone from membership in a Rotary Club that are not specifically condemned in RI policy. The general qualification for membership in a Rotary Club plus our shared beliefs and ideals should be relied upon to exclude individuals who should not be Rotarians because of unethical business practices, criminal activity and/or human rights violations,
It is true that a lack of a written policy against a practice does not equate to an endorsement of the practice, but it may also indicate that insufficient thought has been given to this evil practice in the past. If it had been done, the words "and slavery" may well have already been included in the RI Code of Policies. The RI statement also begs the question "should not all repugnant things in this world be specifically condemned in RI policy ? At the 1927 RI Convention in Ostend, Belgium, RI President Harry Rogers said "Let the slogan this year be Make Rotary Effective. Where it exists, make its influence felt. Where it does not exist, if possible extend it"
The final request in the Memorial relates to the support for anti-slavery organisations such as "Free the Slaves". Whilst the RI letter does not deal specifically with this issue, one of the RI Board members has explained that "the Board did not agree to actively encourage clubs to support organisations whose mission is the elimination of slavery as they felt we need to focus completely on the conclusion of the Polio Eradication initiative at present."
The suggestion by the Board that it cannot actively encourage support for anti-slavery organisations because it can only concentrate on one cause at a time is an astonishing statement to make. Perhaps we should defer all of our current international and local community service activities and just focus on PolioPlus until the polio virus has been eradicated. No…. such a thought is nonsensical. Although we still haven't achieved our Polio objective as yet, the RI Board still manages to encourage clubs and members to support other NGOs. For example in its 1999 Position Statement on Population Growth & Sustainable Development, the RI Board "encourages Rotary Clubs and Districts, working as appropriate with government agencies, non-governmental organisations & local leadership, to increase awareness & undertake even more projects that directly impact population growth & sustainable development" Is population growth more important than the child slavery virus ?
There is a struggle going on in the world on human rights issues. A struggle that demands we choose sides – not between black and white – not between rich or poor – not between Christians or Muslims. No, it's a harder choice than that. It is a choice between commitment & indifference, between dignity & servitude, between right & wrong, between fairness & injustice. What is this injustice ? It is the use of children as slaves. Dr Martin Luther King said "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"
It is my hope that our Rotary leaders will eventually take an active stand in the outcry against child slavery. There are two key obstacles which stand in the way of its total eradication: lack of awareness and lack of resources. I ask that we join together by giving our financial and moral support to the various anti-slavery organisations that exist worldwide and take every opportunity to publicise the fact that slavery exists. "In a world where most people loath slavery, awakening their awareness will unleash great power. When we come to know that we are living in a world with slaves, that their stolen labour feeds into out shops and homes, the urge to act will become irrepressible. When that urge, that desire that all should be free, sweeps across our world, the end of slavery will be near. From that desire will flow the resources needed to get the job done and the liberators needed to help more and more slaves to walk free" (Ending Slavery: Professor Kevin Bales)