One ripple at a time

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Africa’s Ivory Coast is far from being the sweetest place on earth.  Historically the first American slaves were Ivorians sold by their own government to European slave traders and human rights conditions there haven’t improved much in the last 300 years.
In 1999 the Ivorian government was overthrown in a military coup.  The elections in 2000 set by General Robert Guei turned sour when the General tried to steal the election from popular socialist Laurent Gbagbo, the country’s first democratically elected president.  The Gbagbo regime has promised human rights reforms in the Ivory Coast.
But those reforms won’t come easily.  After last week’s acquittal of 8 military officers for massacring 57 civilians the Ivorian prosecutor called for another trial.  The police, Gbagbo’s power base, are unhappy and threatening another coup.  While next door in Liberia a raging civil war has refugees flooding into the Ivory Coast looking for work in the cocoa fields.  The Ivory Coast is Africa’s leading exporter of cocoa used in chocolate.
As if things weren’t bad enough for the Gbagbo regime enter New York Congressman Eliot Engel.  In response to Knight Ridder news service articles about slavery in the Ivory Coast Engel has started a crusade to force American chocolate makers like Pennsylvania’s Hershey to label their candy bars “slave free.”  He hopes that a consumer boycott will force the government of the Ivory Coast to react.
When Engel’s bill carried the House in June by an overwhelming majority President Gbagbo reacted.  He immediately ordered the Ivorian military to seize undocumented aliens concentrating on young men in cocoa fields.  Most were forced back into Liberia at gun point where they face conscription or roving death squads.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission estimates there are 200,000 slaves in sub-Sahara Africa.  In southern Sudan Christians are being enslaved. When a New York based Islamic organization raised money to buy a few of them freedom the slaves’ achilles tendons were brutally cut in retaliation.
Two weeks ago the British and French Navies scoured the eastern Atlantic off the coast of West Africa chasing a “slave-ship” from Benin.  Turns out the ship held 139 desperate adults and a few children who had paid about $275 each to get to oil-rich Gabon to look for work.  Unlike the Ivorians, Gabon has all its oil money to keep its official eyes blind to abuse of basic human dignity.
In his new book “Does America need a foreign policy?” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes: “sub-Sahara Africa is a tragedy…its variety inhibits concerted action yet the scope of its crises demands a significant response.”
Labels on candy bars are not a significant response to the gross indignity of slavery and they won’t stop it.  The boycott will make conditions in northwestern Africa worse.  The Ivory Coast has had a rainy season that promises to produce the best cocoa crop in years.  The harvest is in November.  If Gbagbo can make economic progress he can push for sorely needed human rights reforms.  The alternative, the Ivorian military, has demonstrated clearly in the last two years that it doesn’t know what human rights are.
The world’s candy makers are doing their part.  Led by Hershey and Mars in the US and Cadbury in Great Britain a commission has been formed to monitor the cocoa fields of northwestern Africa while the US Development Agency conducts a survey of the slave trade in the region.   But the chocolatiers can not and should not have to go it alone.  Just about any importer of any product that comes from sub-Sahara Africa will run afoul of some form of human rights abuse.
Slavery should scar the soul of any ethical person or institution on this planet.  But if we begin to sanction the few products that this region of the world can sell all we will do is add to the miserable conditions that these people face.  American and European businesses can help change Africa. Congress with the European Common Market can keep the pressure on the private sector.  But 300 years of struggle to divest of colonial rule won’t change with warnings on candy bar wrappers.
Engel though has sparked a fire that can someday burn the scourge of slavery off the face of the earth.  Another Democrat who represented New York, Robert Kennedy, once said: “each time a man acts to strike out against injustice he sends out a ripple of hope.”  With gradual, engaged strategies the free world’s economic might can send a tide of hope to enslaved Africans.  But to prevent more bloodshed in the Ivory Coast it may be best to send it one ripple at a time.