25 March 2014
General Assembly
GA/11491

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

Sixty-eighth General Assembly

Plenary

77th Meeting (PM)


Modern Forms of Slavery Still Thrive among Us, Delegates Tell General Assembly


As It Commemorates Transatlantic Slave Trade’s Victims

 


‘Slave Boats of the Past’ Recall Today’s Refugees, Speaker Says in Keynote Address


Efforts to eradicate the legacy of slavery must continue, speakers in the General Assembly said today, emphasizing that the long-abolished scourge was “not yet a thing of the past”.


Delivering a keynote address as the Assembly commemorated the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Special Envoy Michaëlle Jean said that the slave boats of the past recalled the refugees of today, who fled in search of better lives.  Today, as yesterday, the struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity, and respect for universal human rights principles, was more vital than ever, she said.


Ms. Jean, Special Envoy for Haiti of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project (2014-2015), said she had been born among the victims of the slave trade who had been dispossessed of everything — name, language, culture, home and dignity.  She was a daughter of the 25 to 30 million people deported and sold like beasts of burden.  “The Atlantic is a graveyard,” she said, noting that for every survivor, an estimated five people had died, thousands of them from disease and the difficult sea crossing.


She said 2014 marked the 210th anniversary of the founding of Haiti, a country sometimes betrayed by its own people, and by both human and natural disaster.  “ Haiti bends, but does not break,” she declared.  It sought to be reborn, to exit from poverty and to break from the aid dependency that had undermined its sovereignty and for which it had paid a dear price.


John Ashe (Antigua and Barbuda), President of the General Assembly, said that this year’s theme, “Victory over Slavery:  Haiti and Beyond”, was intended to acknowledge the role of a country synonymous with the quest for freedom against the institution of slavery, which still stalked the planet in many forms and manifestations.  Too many innocent women and young girls were held in bondage, denied freedom and the right to live in dignity due to human trafficking and sexual exploitation, he said.  Too many children in servitude were victims of child labour.


Susana Malcorra, Chef de Cabinet to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, delivered a message on his behalf, saying that, each year, the United Nations honoured the memory of the millions of men, women and children who had endured the curse of slavery.  By recalling the causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade, “we recommit to educating current and future generations of the dangers of racism and prejudice”.


Also delivering statements was the Minister for Arts and Culture of Cameroon, who emphasized that her country’s slave port of Bimbia had played a major role in the transatlantic slave trade, although earlier research focused more on sites in Ghana, Senegal and Benin.  Bimbia had become a collecting point for slaves and other cargoes during the second half of eighteenth century, she said, adding that Cameroon envisaged registration of the site on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


Haiti’s representative expressed appreciation for today’s commemoration, saying that his country had told the world 210 years ago that the system based on slavery was no longer valid, thereby providing momentum to the eventual abolition of slavery.  Haiti’s revolution had contributed to “the advent of a new moral order based on human dignity”, he said.


The commemoration concluded with a cultural performance by renowned Haitian singer Emeline Michela.


Others speaking today were representatives of Guinea-Bissau (on behalf of the African Group), Bulgaria (on behalf of the Eastern European States), Tonga (on behalf of the Asia-Pacific States), Chile (on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean States), New Zealand (on behalf of the Western European and other States), United States, Spain, Japan and Cuba.


The General Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 March, to fill vacancies in subsidiary organs among other outstanding matters.


Background


The General Assembly met this afternoon as part of its commemoration of the seventh International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.


Opening Remarks


JOHN ASHE ( Antigua and Barbuda), President of the General Assembly, said that “Victory over Slavery: Haiti and Beyond” was the theme of this year’s commemoration, to acknowledge the role of a country synonymous with the quest for freedom against the institution of slavery.  Haiti’s revolution of 1791-1804 was considered by historians to be the most successful and sustained slave revolt to have ever occurred, he said.  Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and others like Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, the Haitian revolution was a defining moment in the histories of Europe and the Americas, and had culminated in the birth of a new nation, the Republic of Haiti, which had celebrated its 210th anniversary in January 2014.


Noting that slavery still stalked the planet in many forms and manifestations, he said too many innocent women and young girls were held in bondage, denied freedom and the right to live in dignity due to human trafficking and sexual exploitation.  Too many children in servitude were victims of child labour.  “We must turn our commitments into concrete action, so that women and the young can live without fear and want,” he declared.  It was a collective responsibility of the community of Nations to address the root causes of modern-day slavery, to provide protection and assistance to the victims, and to ensure that the perpetrators did not enjoy impunity.  By continuing and sustained efforts to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery, as well as racism and racial discrimination, “we move forward down the path of dignity, decency and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all,” he said.


SUSANA MALCORRA, Chef de Cabinet to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, delivered a message on his behalf, saying that each year, the United Nations honoured the memory of the millions of men, women and children who had endured the curse of slavery.  By recalling the causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade, “we recommit to educating current and future generations of the dangers of racism and prejudice.”


Work was under way at United Nations Headquarters on the Permanent Memorial to the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, she said.  It would stand as a constant reminder of the courage of the slaves, abolitionists and unsung heroes who had helped to end the oppression of slavery.  “On this day, let us remember the abuses of the past and intensify our efforts to end those of the present,” she said.


João Soares Da Gama(Guinea‑Bissau), speaking on behalf of the African Group, described the transatlantic slave trade as one of human history’s darkest chapters , spanning more than 400 years and counting more than 15 million victims.  The extensive exodus of Africans was unprecedented in the annals of recorded history, and the African Union was therefore playing a primary role in the project to erect the Permanent Memorial at United Nations Headquarters acknowledging the tragedy of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.  The “Ark of Return”, to be designed by Rodney Leon from Haiti, would illustrate “a voice of change and hope”, he said, urging all Member States to make the concluding financial contribution required to complete the Memorial.


MAHE ‘ULI’ULI SANDHURST TUPOUNIUA (Tonga), speaking on behalf of the Asia-Pacific States, said modern slavery persisted today in the form of debt bondage, forced labour, forced and underage marriage, recruitment of child soldiers and trafficking in children.  Success in the continuing fight against such abuse hinged on freeing societies from the poverty that allowed it to persist.  Indeed, poverty created circumstances ripe for modern slave masters to exploit the poor, he said, adding that tackling its causes would eradicate a system created to perpetuate the blight of slavery on humanity.  The remembrance of slavery’s victims was an opportune time to discuss the causes, consequences and lessons learned from the worst human rights violations ever experienced.


STEPHAN TAFROV (Bulgaria), speaking on behalf of the Eastern European States, stressed the need for a pledge to intensify efforts to eliminate the remnants of slavery and to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice that persisted even today.  There was a need also to remember the brave men and women who had struggled to emerge from slavery and risked their lives for freedom.  “Their courage and determination should lead us in our own struggle against contemporary forms of slavery,” he said.  The Eastern European States shared the conviction that national strategies for the eradication of slavery must focus on prevention, protection and support for the victims, as well as prosecution of the perpetrators.  “Unfortunately, slavery is not yet a thing of the past,” he noted.


Eduardo Gálvez (Chile), speaking on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean States, said the region’s countries had strongly supported the General Assembly’s proclamation, on 13 December 2013, of the International Decade for People of African Descent, starting on 1 January 2015.  They attached great importance to educating and informing current and future generations about the causes, consequences and lessons of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade so as to ensure that that dark period of human history would never be repeated.


JIM MCLAY (New Zealand), speaking on behalf of the Western European and other States, said it had been more than 200 years since the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.  Eighteen per cent of its 15 million victims were believed to have perished on their voyage across the Middle Passage.  Today, the world paid respect to that inhumane event and its aftermath of forced labour and attendant cruelties.  Indeed, modern forms of slavery persisted, he emphasized, citing the forcible involvement of children in armed conflict — practices made all the more stark by transportation and communications technologies.  He called for redoubled efforts to end contemporary slavery, as well as racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.


ELIZABETH COUSENS ( United States) described the occasion as a time to remember all those who had been stolen from their families to experience untold horrors during the transatlantic slave trade.  Today’s event also commemorated those who had fought against that outrageous practice, denying their fear to rise up against injustice and reclaim their humanity and freedom.  More than 200 years ago, Haiti had shown the world that slavery and oppression could be overcome, she said.  In combating modern forms of slavery, “we must be unrelenting in our resolve” to see all people live in freedom.


MICHAËLLE JEAN, Special Envoy for Haiti of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project (2014-2015), said that today’s world was one in which shade and light lived together, where lives were threatened and liberties were frustrated.


Yet today, she said, delegates had gathered to show the best part of themselves, combating the dark forces of destruction and determined to express faith in fundamental freedoms, the value of the individual, and equality between both men and women and nations large and small.  They were carrying out their duty to remember and draw lessons from the past, she said.


Describing her personal experience, she said had been born among victims of the slave trade who had been dispossessed of everything — name, language, culture, home and dignity.  She was a daughter of the 25 to 30 million people deported and sold like beasts of burden.  For every survivor, an estimated five people had died, thousands from disease and the difficult sea crossing alone, she said, adding: “The Atlantic is a graveyard.”


She said that she was from Santo Domingo, from where Toussaint L’Ouverture had launched a strong appeal for an end to such exploitation, and she would not be present had it not been for the Enlightenment thinkers who had supported the principles of autonomy, purpose and universality from which had stemmed the demand for equality.


Recalling that 2014 marked the 210th anniversary of the founding of Haiti — a country sometimes betrayed by its own people, and by both human and natural disaster — she declared: “ Haiti bends but does not break.”  It sought to be reborn, to exit from poverty and to break from the aid dependency that had undermined its sovereignty and for which it had paid a dear price.


It was for the United Nations to help the world move from words to action with greater confidence, she said.  The slave boats of the past recalled today’s refugees, who fled in search of a better life.  Today, as yesterday, the struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity, as well as respect for universal human rights principles, was more vital than ever, she said.


AMA TUTU MUNA, Minister for Arts and Culture of Cameroon, underlined the historical fact that the slave port of Bimbia, located 12 kilometres from the seaside town of Limbe in her country’s South-West Region, had played a major role in the history and industry of the transatlantic slave trade, although earlier research focused more on El Mina in Ghana, Gorée in Senegal and Ouidah in Benin.


Bimbia had been known to Portuguese explorers from as early as 1472 and had become a collecting point for slaves and other cargoes during the second half of the eighteenth century, she said.  The first slave ship had left Bimbia in 1777 for the island of Saint Vincent, she said, stressing the need to intensify specialized research on Bimbia’s role as Cameroon envisaged registration of the site on the World Heritage List.


DENIS RÉGIS ( Haiti) recalled that seven years ago, the General Assembly had designated 25 March the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  He paid tribute to the sacrifices made by many, including great thinkers, politicians and ordinary citizens, who had rejected terror and domination to denounce the enormous dehumanizing enterprise of slavery and the slave trade.


Noting that the United Nations had decided to associate itself closely with his country in commemorating the occasion this year, he said Haiti was proud of its achievement 210 years ago.  Acknowledging the contributions made by the first resistance fighters and those who had picked up the “torch”, he called them anonymous heroes whose efforts had culminated in their triumph over their oppressors.


Haiti had told the world that the system based on slavery was no longer valid, providing great momentum to the eventual abolition of slavery by France and then by the United States, he continued.  Its revolution had contributed to the advent of a new moral order based on human dignity, he said, stressing that that contribution must be better known and better recognized.


ROMÁN OYARZUN MARCHESI ( Spain) said that 25 March recalled one of history’s most awful chapters, when between 14 and 15 million people had lost their lives over the 400-year-long course of slavery.  Paying homage to all those who had perished, and those who had helped to end the abuse, he said slavery continued today in the form of human trafficking.  Spain had struggled to combat such abuse, he said, announcing that his country would contribute an additional €30,000 to the Permanent Memorial.


JUN YAMAZAKI (Japan) said his country had co-sponsored General Assembly resolution 68/7, which endorsed the initiative to erect the Permanent Memorial, and would continue its efforts to end every form of slavery and to realize freedom and equality for all.


DAYLENIS MORENO GUERRA ( Cuba) said her country was a melting pot of Spanish, African and Asian, as well as indigenous cultures.  “We see the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade,” she said, notably in the colonial plantations that had resulted from it.  Yet, Cuban traditions had emerged from African predecessors, who had brought with them wisdom and the spirit of rebellion against injustice.  Cuba supported the payment of reparations for the genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the transatlantic slave trade, she said.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record