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A Bitter Truth in Ivory Coast

The Ivory Coast is in turmoil. The UN General Assembly has recognized Alassane Ouattara as the democratically elected new president, but the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refuses to step down.

Governments worldwide have called on Gbagbo to concede defeat. The Economic Community of West African States has threatened to use force if negotiations fail. Meanwhile, hundreds of Ouattara’s supporters have disappeared; there are reports of mass graves. But Gbagbo is complicit in another, particularly heinous crime.

Within the Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry, which supplies 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa beans, there’s widespread child slavery.

Parents in the poorer surrounding countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo hand their offspring over to traffickers in the hope that the children will find work in the Ivory Coast and send remittances home. Yet many of the children — tens of thousands of them — are never paid.

Instead, they are forced to work under hazardous conditions, with machetes and pesticides. Many of them are malnourished, physically abused and subjected to nightly detention.

Not surprisingly, international law prohibits slavery, which ranks with genocide as one of the worst international crimes. It also prohibits the employment of children younger than 14.

On paper, Ivory Coast agrees. It has ratified the Slavery Convention, thus committing itself to “the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.”

It has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms “the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation,” as well as the Convention Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment, which sets the baseline working age in undeveloped countries at 14.

But tragically, these rules are not enforced. Sixty per cent of the cocoa industry workforce is made up of children under the age of 14.

Worse yet, the child slavery helps Gbagbo to stay in power. The use of slave labour enables the cocoa to be produced cheaply, taxed heavily, then exported in return for hard foreign currency.

In the circumstances, UN sanctions would certainly be justified. But that would not change the situation quickly: cocoa beans from the Ivory Coast are already being smuggled out through Ghana and Togo.

Canadians can help by buying only Fair Trade certified chocolate, and by demanding that Ottawa support a UN-authorized military intervention by ECOWAS.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has indicated that his government would back ECOWAS if the regional organization sought a UN resolution authorizing intervention. Such a resolution might itself be enough to persuade Gbagbo to step down.

If he does not, Canada should assist ECOWAS with intelligence and logistics, and then provide the new government of Ivory Coast with an infusion of aid.

This aid should be made conditional on eradicating child slavery, paying the victims for their past work, and helping them return home. These conditions should be part of a comprehensive plan — a new Canadian foreign policy priority — to eradicate child trafficking and slavery worldwide.

In the Ivory Coast, however, there is a need for immediate action. The child slaves need to be liberated now.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Raffi Cavoukian, C.M., is founder and chair of the Centre For Child Honouring on Salt Spring Island, BC.

Also appeared in The Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen and The Calgary Herald.

January 7, 2011 News