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Breaking the Silence: Beating the Drum, International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 25 March 2009

General Assembly President's Message

New York
March 25, 2009

Excellencies, Mr. Secretary-General, Distinguished Artists and Musicians, Brothers and Sisters All,

Let me begin by thanking you all for making today’s Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade the focus of attention not only here at the United Nations, but around the entire world. It is as if, after so many centuries, the world is finally beginning to come to terms with what is one of the darkest stains in our long history of inhumane treatment of our fellow Sisters and Brothers. It is indeed ironic that we are celebrating this commemoration of such a bitter legacy. But this transformation is cause for celebration, as well as solemn commemoration.

The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 seems so long ago and far away. But I believe most of us appreciate the importance of bringing this historic event to the attention of the world.

The abolition of the slave trade, which criss-crossed the Atlantic from Africa to Europe, Latin America and North America for hundreds of years, did not actually end slavery. In fact, it provoked bitterness and bloodshed that linger today. But it was an important step towards this ban, marking one of the early decisions by the international community to join forces to combat the barbarous and enormously lucrative slave trade.

I have always been an advocate of forgiveness and reconciliation. The slave trade constitutes one of those horrendous crimes against humanity. It is a wonder that so many Africans and their African-America descendents have been generous enough to forgive these crimes; but that none of us, anywhere in the world, should forget.

A part of this historic tragedy is the fact that the slave trade and slavery itself continue to have deep, if unacknowledged relevance to our world today. We see it in the continuing racism that remains ingrained in virtually all our societies. Let us keep in mind that this pervasive evil is what makes the Durban Anti-Racism Review Conference, set to meet in Geneva next month, so relevant and so important. Let us work together ensure that this controversial conference is constructive and successful.

Slavery’s relevance today reminds us that the slave trade was an institution that not only devastated a continent but poisoned the roots of societies young and old by its corrosive presence. We all continue to suffer the consequences of this exploitation – obviously some of us much more than others.

As well, even as we focus on the victims of the slave trade, we must acknowledge that a contemporary form of slavery remains with us, often invisible and tolerated on an international scale. Despite legislation that proclaims that slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms, millions of people remain victims of slavery. One has only to refer to reports on the horrendous conditions of rural workers, often indigenous peoples, who are victims of the traditional forms of slavery.

And there are the more modern forms of slavery that rely on human trafficking – international trade at its most evil. These victims include forced laborers, child soldiers and sex slaves, as well as those trafficked in the illegal adoption trade or for the purpose of organ removal. I think we can be proud of the work of the General Assembly is working on many fronts to abolish and punish these contemporary crimes against humanity.

But today, we have come together to commemorate the countless victims of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade – and give their memory the honour and recognition that so many would rather deny. I applaud the work of the Department of Public Information and the generous spirit of so many musicians who are here to raise the profile of this commemoration. Let us all join them in the concerted effort to make slavery a distant memory rather than a nightmarish reality it remains today.

Thank you.

H.E. Mr. Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann