25 March 2011

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

On International Day against Slavery, Secretary-General Remembers Human Beings


at Their Best, Rising Up Despite Mortal Risk, Challenging Status Quo


Following are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks at the General Assembly meeting commemorating the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in New York, 25 March:

The transatlantic slave trade caused untold suffering.  We are here today to focus on the untold stories – the living legacy of 30 million untold stories, the stories of the Africans and their descendants who were treated as less than human, the memories, brought with them through the terror of the middle passage — their culture and totems, suppressed and given little or no room for expression; their beliefs, to which they turned for solace and sustenance during a harrowing ordeal; their history and very identity, systematically erased.

Through this International Day, we commit to remember, recognize and restore.  Over the past week, the United Nations has organized a series of events to mark the occasion.  I thank those who have helped make these efforts possible, including the Caribbean Community, the African Group and Chair of the African Union, the Permanent Mission of Equatorial Guinea and the Permanent Mission of Cameroon.

Just steps from this podium, in the visitors’ lobby, is a moving exhibition.  In one of the display cases, you will see a slave ball, typical of the ones used to limit the movement of slaves.  It weighs 50 pounds.  Not 10, 20 or even 30 pounds -- all heavy enough.  Try picking up 50 pounds even once.  Then imagine it as a constant presence.  Then imagine the horrendous conditions and treatment that accompanied that weight.  Then imagine the mindset of the slavers, who built the system, callous, righteous, infected with greed, inhuman behaviour.  Yet these overlords and slave-masters were all too human.  Therein lies our challenge, even today -- to remember slavery then, and continue the fight against its contemporary versions now.

That is the weight that, together, we must carry.  While legalized, slavery has long been abolished, slavery-like practices are very much with us -- from debt bondage and domestic servitude to forced or early marriages, the sale of wives and trafficking in children.  That is why we have to educate people about the trade, including through the United Nations Educational Outreach Programme and UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] efforts such as the Slave Route Initiative and the General History of Africa. 

By studying slavery, we give names and faces to people and places that had been made invisible.  By examining the prevailing assumptions and beliefs that allowed the practice to flourish, we raise awareness about the continued dangers of racism and hatred.  And by honouring slavery’s victims we restore some measure of dignity to those who had been so mercilessly stripped of it. That is the aim of this International Day and of this year’s observance of the International Year for People of African Descent.  And it is at the heart of efforts to establish a permanent memorial here at the United Nations Headquarters complex.

This International Day forces us to confront human beings at their worst.  But in those who opposed slavery then and now, we also celebrate people at their best: the brave slaves who rose up despite mortal risk; the abolitionists who challenged the status quo; the activists today who fight intolerance and injustice.  Whether renowned or unsung, these heroes show that the pursuit of human dignity is the most powerful force of all.

Thank you very much.

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For information media • not an official record