26 March 2012
General Assembly
GA/11217

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

Sixty-sixth General Assembly

Plenary

103rd Meeting (PM)


Speakers Urge Vigilance against Lingering Racism as General Assembly Observes


International Day to Remember Transatlantic Slave Trade’s Victims

 


Speakers Call for Action to Combat Modern Forms of Slavery, Exploitation


Decrying the “hideous mechanics” of a trade that once spanned the Atlantic Ocean, senior United Nations and Government officials today marked the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade by urging vigilance against lingering racism and calling for action to combat modern-day forms of slavery and exploitation.


Opening the meeting held in observance of the occasion, General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser (Qatar) said that honouring the millions of people who had struggled under slavery’s yoke provided an opportunity to “ensure that one of the worst violations of human rights in the history of humanity is never forgotten”.  He joined other high-level speakers in honouring the heroes, resisters and survivors of the transatlantic slave trade, pointing out that the “terrible impacts of those practices” were still felt to the present day.  The slave trade had devastated countries and continents, he said, adding that it had given rise to profound social and economic inequalities, as well as hatred, racism and prejudice.


In that respect, he continued, it was crucial to embrace the opportunity presented by the International Day to raise awareness of the dangers associated with racism and prejudice, while acknowledging that 200 years after the abolition of slavery, “we are once again faced with this scourge”.  Contemporary forms of slavery had emerged in the forms of racism, trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation, child labour, forced marriage and the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.  “We are here today not only to raise awareness … but to ensure that such systematic abuse of human rights is never repeated again”.


Indeed, said Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, speaking on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the International Day had been established for the millions of people whose lives and families had been destroyed, and whose dignity had been brutally negated by slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.  But perhaps more poignantly, the Day would also be used to teach about the causes and consequences of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.  “We have a shared responsibility to be vigilant about the many contemporary forms of slavery,” she emphasized.


While new laws, institutions and mindsets provided better tools for the struggle against such ills, bias was still on the increase in many parts of the world, she said.  Discriminatory practices were gaining political, moral, even legal recognition through the platforms of political parties and the use of modern communications technologies.  The United Nations remained firmly committed to countering such hateful acts and trends, in keeping with its Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  “On this International Day, let us all reaffirm our commitment to combating racism, and to building societies based on justice, equality and solidarity,” she declared.


Delivering the keynote address, Rick Kittles, Scientific Director of African Ancestry, Inc., described the horrors of the Middle Passage — the sea voyage to the Americas that enslaved Africans were forced to endure — saying it was that history which connected Africans in the diaspora, whether they were the Gullah or Gichi peoples on the islands of South Carolina, or the Afro-Brazilians.  It was a tie that connected those people to the African continent, which, despite efforts to prevent the sharing of knowledge, was a beacon alerting the lost descendants to homes unknown.


African Americans, and those in the Diaspora, had a unique population history, characterized by loss of family and cultural ties, he continued, stressing that it was high time to recognize that the history of Afro-descendants had not started with slavery in the antebellum South.  Unlike languages and cultures, genetic material — which linked families, communities and regions — could not be lost, he said, adding that genetic information was now being used to seek the ancestry of those descended from slaves.


He went on to note that an estimated 15 to 30 per cent of enslaved Africans ha not made it across the Atlantic, succumbing to infectious disease, lack of water and food.  That issue must be explored, as the current state of health among people of the African Diaspora was very poor, he emphasized.  Type II diabetes, asthma and other diseases were linked to genes and the environment, and should be recognized as issues of social justice, alongside that of reparations, he said.


Other speakers echoed grave concerns about the continuing prevalence of racism and racial discrimination against Africans and people of African descent.  Such negative perceptions and treatment could be traced back to the slave trade’s historical legacy, said Chitsaka Chipaziwa (Zimbabwe), speaking on behalf of the Group of African States.  Africans in the Diaspora continued to suffer racial discrimination, he said, adding:  “If all Member States are committed to eradicating these traces of slavery, it is imperative that they vigorously implement programmes and activities to disseminate the message of equality and respect in the diversity of all peoples within their territories.”


He said the African Group would continue to stress the importance and centrality of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism as a “turning point” for the international community.  The Declaration recognized past injustices and the need to rectify the current situation of people of African descent, he said, adding that all countries should embrace its recommendations.  There was no value in demonizing those noble efforts.  In a similar vein, he said that honouring slavery’s heroes, resisters and survivors would not be enough without addressing the question of reparations.  The African Group would continue to push for the General Assembly to address that issue.  “This demand will not go away,” he stressed, joining diverse voices in expressing support for the erection at United Nations Headquarters of the Permanent Memorial of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.


Dessima M. Williams (Grenada), speaking on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, said a “new miserable day had dawned” in the Americas with the advent of the slave trade and slavery.  While the story of enslavement was a terrible one, it was not the whole story.  There were those who had fought for justice against a horrific system of injustice, she said, adding that, like them, “we too must become deserving inheritors of the great legacy of freedom fought for and won.”


Among the most prominent heroes, resisters and survivors in the Western Hemisphere, she said, were Felipillo, who had led one of the Americas’ biggest anti-slavery revolts in 1549, on Panama’s Pacific coast; Gaspar Yanga, an African slave who had led a rebellion in the sixteenth century; Toussaint Louverture, founder of modern Haiti, the world’s first independent black republic, in 1804; and Julien Fedon, a Grenadian who had joined the Haitian resistance movement.  They were among the region’s most celebrated heroes, she reiterated.


She went on to hail the myriad freedoms won as fundamental rights now recognized by the international community and defended across the Caribbean and Latin America.  Indeed, the aspirations of people of African descent in the Americas reflected global aspirations, and their contributions were seen in every walk of life.  “And so we bow low to bravery in the creation of freedom.  We are proud that our African ancestors in the Caribbean and Latin America left their indelible mark for freedom,” she said.  “That is our shining inheritance.”


Several speakers referred to national and international efforts — as well as progress made — in combating lingering racism and racial discrimination.  Agreeing that the slave trade’s terrible effects had continued long after its official abolition, Rosemary DiCarlo (United States) said society in her country had been enriched by African American leaders who, by word and example, had sought to cast off the burden of slavery and to keep the country true to its founding principles.  They now served at all levels of government and played an important role in all parts of society, she said, adding:  “We have made progress, but we still have a long way to go.”


She said that as part of the International Year for People of African Descent, held in 2011, the United States had engaged with civil society and host Governments in the Western Hemisphere on a set of programmes aimed at highlighting the contributions made by people of African descent.  The Government was working closely with its counterparts in Brazil and Colombia on action plans to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination and to promote equality, she said, adding that it was also partnering with Brazil to launch an anti-racism curriculum project at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


Jim McLay ( New Zealand) announced that his country had decided to contribute $10,000 to the Permanent Memorial Trust Fund.  In addition, the staff of New Zealand’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations would contribute to a donation for the same Fund as an expression of solidarity with all victims of slavery.


Prior to opening the meeting, the Assembly President called attention to document A/66/668/Addendum 8, in which the Secretary-General informed members that Cape Verde and Gambia had made the payments necessary to reduce their arrears below the amount specified in Article 19 of the United Nations Charter.


Also speaking today were representatives of the Federated States of Micronesia (on behalf of the Group of Asia-Pacific States), Albania (on behalf of the Group of Eastern European States) and San Marino (on behalf of the Group of Western European and Other States).  The Assembly also saw a performance by the National Ballet of Cameroon.


The General Assembly will reconvene at a date and time to be announced.


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For information media • not an official record