Environmental Racism And Neo-slavery 

Whether it is child marriages, trafficking, or bonded labour, the state and policymakers have been complicit at every step in addressing the systemic environmental racism against its people and their continued enslavement while trampling their rights

Environmental Racism And Neo-slavery 

This August marked 60 years since Martin Luther King Jr., despite the best efforts of the US government, marched on to Washington to manifest the biggest dream that Americans had had since Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams helped finalise the Constitution of a new country called the United States of America.

That march and Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, which required his blood to become a reality, was a major turning point in the history of the USA and in the long struggle in pursuit of the ideals espoused by the country's founding fathers nearly 200 years prior.

But 60 years on from that day, racial inequality continues to prevail in the US. The US Supreme Court has barred race-conscious admission policies after Black Lives Matter protests. Previously, the 'Dred Scott' case denied Black people citizenship and the right to sue, while 'Plessy v. Ferguson' legalised segregation.

This attitude, however, has permeated into other aspects of the world where it remains largely unchallenged and manifesting in these unique environments. Environmental racism discriminates on race, religion or geography, depriving individuals and communities of their lands by criminalising or enslaving them, which, though now illegal, exists as neo-slavery. 

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) addresses neo-slavery under Forced Labour Convention No.29; Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention No.87; Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention No.98; Abolition of Forced Labour Convention No.105; Minimum Age Convention No.138; Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention No.182; and the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

The ILO found some 40 million people in neo-slavery and 152 million in child labour worldwide in 2017. By 2022, this increased to 50 million people in neo-slavery, including forced labour and forced marriages, making the UN's Sustainable Development Goals unachievable. 

By allowing child marriages, courts have been complicit in forced marriages, bonded labour, organ trafficking, child labour, child soldiering, sexual slavery, human trafficking and forced conversions. We will take a look at the Pakistani context of these.

Child marriages

The Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) validated marriages of girls under 16 years of age in 'Bakhshi v Bashir.' However, the Islamabad High Court (IHC), in 'Mumtaz Bibi v. Qasim,' declared that the marriage of girls younger than 18 years of age was invalid, citing Pakistan's ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

This does not exclusively apply to Muslims, however. Non-Muslim fathers can obtain custody of their minor daughters in child marriage cases as their Wali, as the Balochistan High Court ruled in 'Muhammad Azam' where it recognised non-Muslims compounding murder as Wali.  

The SCP, in  'SMC No.1/2014,' upheld the constitutional rights of minorities but without declaring forced conversions and subsequent child marriages as illegal. Instead, it held that Hindu girls had eloped with men of their choice. In 2023, the United Nations was forced to urge Pakistan to investigate forced conversions, child marriages, and failure to register the complaints of victim's families while labelling these cases as 'love marriages.'

Forced conversions and minority rights

The Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan and the Aurat Foundation have found that around 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forcibly converted every year, which celebrated Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin — who coined the term — considers as 'cultural genocide.'

A bill on forced conversion in 2016 failed after the Governor of Sindh expressed his opposition. In 2021, the Ministry of Religious Affairs opposed a similar bill in the centre. The Centre for Social Justice demanded improving the National Commission for Minorities Bill in 2023, and called for establishing a National Commission for Minority Rights under the Paris Principles and SMC No.1/2014.

In 2023, reports came that 10 Hindu families had embraced Islam in Sindh, possibly from abject poverty and or threat to life, while a Hindu temple was said to have been demolished in Karachi during the night. At the same time, Ahmadi places of worship in Karachi and Punjab were desecrated, while several Christian Churches and homes in Punjab were attacked during the day.

Former chief justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed had ordered the reconstruction of a Hindu temple in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a mob had attacked it. The Islamabad High Court, however, made it compulsory for members of the Ahmadiyya community to identify themselves in the 'Mulana Allah Wasaya' case, akin to the Yellow Star identification marker Jews were forced to wear under the Nazis before the Holocaust.

Bonded labour and modern slavery

In 2010, UNICEF estimated that some 250,000 Pakistani children were working in brick kilns to repay the debts of their families. Bonded labour exploits poor families' inability to pay loans through secret contracts, low salaries and high interests, even after selling their kidneys.

Former chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry (IMC) had advised the parliament to legislate on organ trafficking; he ordered the registration of brick kilns; and at the South Asia Conference on Environmental Justice, he urged to make laws protecting the environment.

The Global Slavery Index estimates 25 million people in forced labour and 15 million in forced marriages in 2016, placing Pakistan in eighth position in 2018. In 2022, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency finally took action, sealing some 66 brick kilns - not for labour issues, but for environmental ones.

In 2023, Minister of State for Law Shahadat Awan announced the closing of 36 brick kilns and prosecuting of child labour employers in Islamabad. Freed bonded labourers could settle in Azad Nagar, Sindh. More recently, the Sindh government announced a crackdown against spiritual leaders to recover child labourers working at their establishments following the death of 10-year-old housemaid Fatima at the mansion of a spiritual leader.

The 2012 UN Office on Drugs and Crime report acknowledged bonded labour as Pakistan's significant human trafficking issue:

First, it said bonded labour was rampant across agriculture, brick-making, mining, carpet-making, and fishing industries; 

Second, it stated that the Asian Development Bank had estimated 1.8 million bonded labourers or around 1 percent of the population, were inducted into bonded labour after they were kidnapped or sold into labour services such as beggary, domestic servitude, and prostitution with agents exploiting parents and children; 

Third, highlighted children and women's vulnerability to trafficking due to natural and manmade disasters, especially floods; 

Fourth, coercing migrant female workers into prostitution in the Middle East. 

The US Department of State's Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 addressed child sex trafficking between Iran and Pakistan. The Child Soldiers Prevention Act list added Pakistan in 2021—removed in 2022—for law enforcement's inadequate efforts against labour trafficking and local officials in Sindh perpetrating bonded labour in brick kilns with impunity against locals.

Criminalising locals and reviving foreign contracts

The British had criminalised locals under the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Act and the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The Sind Hurs Detention Ordinance, 1946; and the Sind Hurs Detention Act, 1947, criminalised the Hur community and their leader Pir Pagara, for opposing Britishers. 

Foreign invaders trespassing in Balochistan unfairly portrayed locals as bandits. In 'Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, William Dalrymple writes about British troops' vulnerability to ambush when navigating through Balochistan's narrow passes.

'Uti possidetis' made colonial borders permanent, dividing communities criminalising them by declaring their informal trade as smuggling, creating barriers instead of empowerment. 

Rubina Shah Noahtani, representing the Syed Balanoshi Noahtani Sadaat tribe of Balochistan, submitted before ex-CJP Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry regarding former dictator General Pervez Musharraf's unilateral agreements with foreign companies destroying the province's resources; granting them gold and copper mining lease in Reko Diq; harming the wildlife and environment for 20 years by using cyanide gas.

Chaudhry invalidated these contracts, but after the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes awarded a huge amount against Pakistan, the SCP validated settlement agreements with foreign companies, revived the Reko Diq mining project, and ordered employing locals and enforcing labour laws. Section 21 of the Specific Relief Act, 1877, prevents specifically enforcing contracts involving personal service against an unwilling master, the exception being labour laws, which are ineffective against foreign companies, like the Chinese denying the use of prison labour. 

The locals protested against the Reko Diq bill and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority bill for lacking their support and legitimacy.

Trafficked slaves and reparations

The Sheedi community came to the subcontinent from Africa as Arab slaves; most of them are present in Sindh. Hosho Sheedi fought the Britishers, and Tanzeela Qambrani became Pakistan's first Sindhi Sheedi women lawmaker. Environmental racism prevails as such vulnerable communities face disproportionate risks from pollution and displacement from development projects.

The US refused to pay climate reparations after promising a loss and damage fund with other countries, including former and neo-colonialists, at the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), making compensating prevailing historic injustices unlikely. 

As we look to 2024, the world continues to reel from these racial, economic and environmental injustices. While reparations prove to be a powder keg of their own, it is important to broach rapprochement with the respective communities or see the edifices of our constructed structures crumble to the detriment of all in a grand, new, devastating Anthropocene.

The writer is a lawyer and a member of the faculty at the School of Law, University of Karachi.