The Fight Against Modern Slavery: Fulfilling the Promise of the Emancipation Proclamation

DipNote Blog - U.S. Department of State

This Feb. 18, 2005 file photo shows the original Emancipation Proclamation on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington. [AP File Photo]

On New Year’s Day, our nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. President Obama commemorated the anniversary with two Presidential Proclamations: one that celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation and reaffirms the timeless principles it upheld, and a second that declares January 2013 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and calls on all Americans to recognize the vital role we can play in ending all forms of slavery.

President Obama referred to the Emancipation Proclamation as having “brought a new day — that ‘all persons held as slaves’ would thenceforth be forever free. We wrote that promise into our Constitution. We spent decades struggling to make it real.” Yet more than a century and a half later, a great deal of work still remains to fulfill the promise of freedom and restore hope to the millions who are still enslaved today.

Globally, as many as 27 million are victimized in modern slavery. This exploitation occurs every day in our cities and towns. It taints the global supply chains of the products we rely on every day. In countries across the world, it tears apart families, undermines communities, creates instability, and threatens the rule of law.

And, as the recently released documentary Journey to Freedom demonstrates, the nightmares faced by today’s modern slaves are hauntingly similar to those of the slaves of the 1800s. These stories remind us that slavery — then as now — is about the exploitation of men, women, and children who are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. In the past, slavery’s victims were born into bondage. Today, traffickers prey on the vulnerabilities of those seeking a better life.

Yesterday, at President Lincoln’s Cottage, the very place where he developed the Emancipation Proclamation, I joined a panel with three distinguished academics to discuss how our history must inform our struggle to fight modern slavery. President Lincoln’s Cottage and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights co-sponsored the event as well as an anthology of essays by noted historians and experts regarding the Proclamation’s meaning over time and its significance today. My contribution to the anthology highlights the lessons of emancipation in the fight against modern slavery, and reminds us of the costs if we fail to act.

As President Obama has called us to do, we “rededicate ourselves to stopping one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time.” Every citizen can do his or her part. It starts with educating yourself and learning the red flags that may indicate human trafficking. It means being prepared to report tips on potential human trafficking activity to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888. It also means becoming a conscientious consumer by visiting Slavery Footprint to determine “How many slaves work for you?” and what you can do to reduce your slavery footprint. For more ideas, visit 20 Ways You Can Help Fight Human Trafficking and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

As we move forward it will be important to look back at our own history, to its heroes and abolitionists, as an inspiration. Driven by the conviction that fighting slavery is part of who we are as a nation, we must continue on the long journey to freedom — toward a world free from modern slavery.

Cross posted from DipNote, the official blog of the U.S. Department of State

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