The Current

Advocacy News + Updates

Although President Obama devoted the bulk of his State of the Union address on January 20 to domestic concerns, he rightly raised the issue of ISIL and pledged to stop the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

I’ve worked in the international human rights field since the late 1970’s. In that time, I’ve seen very little that sickens me more than ISIL (ISIS). The public beheadings of journalists, the grotesque punishments ordered by kangaroo courts, the execution of captives … But worst of all has been the treatment of women and girls from the minority Yazidi ethnic group. Forced to watch the murder of their brothers, fathers and husbands, hundreds of Yazidi women and girls were then ordered to convert to Islam at gunpoint before being given as wives to ISIL militants. 

Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall gave a public address on global slavery and trafficking earlier this month, and spoke about the link between “fragile states and vulnerable people.” She described how both ISIL and Nigeria’s Boko Haram rebel force grew and prospered when state institutions were weak, and how they used slavery as a weapon of war to terrify and subdue civilian populations. 

The Under Secretary’s point about slavery flourishing precisely where rule of law doesn’t is absolutely correct. But the horrifying enslavement of women and girls by ISIL and Boko Haram are actually only the tip of the iceberg. For tens of millions of children, men and women enslaved around the world, access to the protection of their nation’s laws against slavery are as irrelevant as Iraq and Nigeria’s laws against the crimes of ISIL and Boko Haram. For the world’s slaves, almost every state is a failed state. The state has failed the little girl in the brothel, the family in debt bondage in a rice mill, the foreign worker enslaved on the high seas. 

IJM works to transform “the state” and its institutions – the police, prosecutors, courts and social welfare institutions – from failed to functional so that slaves are freed, traffickers go to jail and communities flourish in safety. It would help that work enormously if the U.S. government, from the President on down, made functioning justice systems a policy priority and provided U.S. government assistance to make it possible.