The world has all of a sudden woken up to the reality of slavery in Libya over the past month, thanks to CNN’s exposé. Picture: Screengrab
The words of Martin Luther King Jr on slavery are as pertinent today as they were when he said them. “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

Well, the world has all of a sudden woken up to the reality of slavery in Libya over the past month, thanks to CNN’s exposé, but the reports of slavery emanating out of Libya from rights groups and NGOs have for years been falling on deaf ears.

Perhaps the images of our African brothers and sisters being sold for $400 (R5465) at market auctions have been enough to prick consciences world wide.

Following the CNN report, the chairperson of the AU, Alpha Conde, said he was “outraged”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “horrified” and French president Emmanuel Macron has called the slave auctions “a crime against humanity”.

The South African government has “condemned the auctioning of African migrants in Libya as slaves” and “called for an immediate end to these atrocities”.

But in April this year, the International Organisation for Migration had produced evidence of slavery in Libya and the existence of markets where migrants are commodities to be bought. A few months later the president of Doctors Without Borders, Joanne Liu, wrote an open letter to European governments about the thriving kidnapping, torture and extortion business in Libya.

“In their efforts to stem the influx, are European governments ready to pay the price for rape, torture and slavery? We can’t say we didn’t know about this,” she wrote.

Amnesty International’s West Africa Director, Alioune Tine, said: “We’ve been talking about slavery for a long time.”

The chorus of condemnation will only continue to get louder. But perhaps Martin Luther King Jnr should have added to his famous saying the caveat: “In the end we will remember not the words of our friends when they finally chose to speak up, but their inaction in the face of human tragedy.”

This is the great concern. The world condemned the genocide in Rwanda over and over again, even as it was being carried out, but what did the UN or Africa really do to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people? Absolutely nothing.

What plan is on the table to immediately end the crime of slavery in Libya? So far absolutely nothing. The sum of our efforts are declarations and condemnations, but we are never prepared to take the difficult road of putting boots on the ground to end these gross violations of human rights.

Wasn’t that exactly the role of the AU which would differentiate it from the Organisation of African Unity? The AU was to be committed and empowered to act swiftly to prevent gross violations of human rights on the continent. But almost two decades after we planned the formation of an AU standby force, nothing has materialised.

The government based in Tripoli is virtually helpless to take action against the slave traders and it controls even less territory than the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar.

Then there are vast swathes of the country which are under the control of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. This is precisely the type of situation in a collapsed state where the AU needs to mobilise rapid reaction forces to move in and do the job.

The slavery issue was high on the agenda of this week’s AU-EU meeting in Abidjan, and it has been decided that the UN-AU-EU will form a task force to fight against slavery in Libya. If that initiative fails, we need to create an African solution to this problem, otherwise the statement of President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana this week will ring true.

He said the reports of slavery in Libya have “made mockeries of the alleged African solidarity of African nations grouped in the AU of which Libya is a member”.

If we are waiting for the UN to do anything more than threaten further sanctions against the perpetrators, then we are deluding ourselves.

Even that is a non-starter, considering that there has been a sanctions programme in place in Libya since 2011, which is targeted at those committing serious human rights abuses. But despite the sanctions programme the practice of slavery has thrived.

It is always convenient to call for an investigation. The Government of National Accord based in Tripoli is being praised for launching an investigation into the reports of slavery.

A thorough investigation into the slavery chain from start to end is, of course, important, but what is needed now is action - and that is where Africa and the international community always fall short.

No wonder the tiny overpopulated country of Rwanda is offering to take in 30000 migrants being held in Libya as it knows too well the cost of inaction.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

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