|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Sixty-first General Assembly
89th & 90th Meetings (AM & PM)
GENERAL ASSEMBLY MARKS 200TH ANNIVERSARY OF END OF TRANS-ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE,
HEARING CALLS FOR ELIMINATION OF MODERN ENSLAVEMENT
Also Approves 2007 Budgets for United Nations Office in Burundi,
International Advisory and Monitoring Board, United Nations Mission in Nepal
The 192-member United Nations General Assembly today held a solemn ceremony to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which claimed the lives of untold millions and shaped the complex history of Africa, the Caribbean region and the Americas.
Bowing their heads for a moment of silence, representatives of Member States, United Nations officials and Government ministers commemorated the passing, on 25 March 1807, by Parliament of the Slave Trade Act prohibiting British ships from transporting human cargo. Those in the Assembly Hall also acknowledged that, in the shadows, some 200 years after William Wilberforce pushed through that historic legislation, insidious forms of modern enslavement, such as trafficking in women and children, and bonded labour, were on the rise.
“Fortunes were made, and financial institutions flourished on the back of human bondage…[so] today’s commemoration must encourage everyone to live up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and to redouble efforts to stop human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery,’” said Boniface Chidyausiku (Zimbabwe), Acting President of the General Assembly, delivering a message on behalf of Assembly President, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa.
He said that the slave trade had begun in the fifteenth century and had been driven by colonial expansion, emerging capitalist economies and the insatiable demand for commodities –- with racism and discrimination serving to legitimize the trade. Africa had been impoverished, even while it contributed to the capitalist development and wealth of Europe and other parts of the world. At the same time, African traders and powerful tribal leaders had also enslaved and sold Africans. The bicentennial offered a chance to say how profoundly disgraceful the slave trade had been, and an opportunity to pay tribute to the courage and moral conviction of all those who had campaigned for its abolition.
Asha-Rose Migiro, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, called on all States to become more keenly aware of the slavery and trafficking in humans “taking place in the shadows all around us”. She urged Member States to take action, among other ways, by adopting and implementing all relevant United Nations instruments and to join the United Nations-backed Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, launched today in London. Joining that Initiative was indeed “a debt we owe to all those we honour today”, she said, adding that many in the past had stood up for freedom and, today, the United Nations must once again do the same.
The ceremony opened with a performance by Senegalese drummers “Sing Sing Rhythm” and ended with renditions of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, by members of the New York-based Independence Choir. It also featured a keynote address by Rex Nettleford, Vice-Chancellor Emeritus of the University of the West Indies, Jamaica.
Drawing attention to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Slave Route Project, which aimed to break the silence surrounding the slave trade and slavery through the historical study of the causes and dynamics of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Mr. Nettleford said that the “African Presence” on the Route continued to speak of those gone, those living and those yet unborn –- “a celebratory incantation of a philosophy of life and of the hope in despair, which has sustained survival and beyond, in defiance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery”.
It was the story of Africa in the Americas for the past half millennium, he said, declaring that the African diaspora cried out for recognition and status in the new dispensation that went by the name of globalization. The aim for diasporic Africa must be to help determine the mainstream, and not merely to float along with the currents. The main point of reparation advocacy was by no means seeking a handout of 500 pounds sterling per person to descendants of the oppressed, but rather positing serious investment by countries, which had been enriched by the “heinous crime of the slave trade and slavery”.
The Assembly was also addressed by representatives of regional groups, key among them Denzil L. Douglas, Prime Minister of Saint Kitts and Nevis, who spoke on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the regional bloc that had helped push through the resolution that led to the United Nations recognition of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He said that the continents of Africa, North America, South America and Europe had been inextricably linked by the “barbaric and horrendous” legal trafficking in human cargo, in which millions, over four centuries, had perished and been subjected to lives of despair, brutality, rape and humiliation.
While commending leaders from some of the former colonial powers who had expressed “deep sorrow” for the practice, he declared that the descendants of African slaves, who had been brought to the Caribbean and the Americas, should be offered a “complete and unequivocal apology”. No country that had been engaged in the slave trade and slavery could justifiably claim support for human rights without first offering an official apology and atonement in the form of reparation.
Speaking on behalf of the African States, South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said slavery might have been about the sale and subjugation of Africans, but its impact has been felt throughout the entire African continent. “Up to this day, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean are said to remain dark and murky with the blood of Africans stolen all along the western coast, as far south as the windy coast of Namibia and all the way to the dry shores of the Sahara.” Two hundred years later, Africa was still nursing the wounds of slavery. He said that, at the historic World Conference against Racism held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, Member States had acknowledged that “slavery and the slave trade were a crime against humanity and should always have been so”. Emyr Jones Parry of the United Kingdom said that the observance also provided an opportunity to celebrate the many who had struggled to abolish the barbaric trans-Atlantic slave trade. They were owed “a countless debt” for leading the tireless campaign that had delivered such basic human rights.
He noted that, in 1936, William Prescott, a former slave, had said: “They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave.” Today, those words must be proven wrong, and he said “we must never forget their strength or their bravery. We must remember this slavery, and honour their memory. And in so doing, we must commit to ensure that no living man, woman or chid can be subjected to the barbarism of modern slavery.”
Also today, following the conclusion of the ceremony, the Assembly held a brief meeting to take up a report of its Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary), which contained a draft resolution on estimates in respect of special political missions, good offices and other political initiatives authorized by the General Assembly and Security Council (document A/C.5/61/L.36).
Adopting the resolution without a vote, the Assembly approved the 2007 budget of $122.06 million for several bodies, including $33.08 million for the United Nations Integrated Office in Burundi, $162,500 for the International Advisory and Monitoring Board and $88.82 million for the United Nations Mission in Nepal.
By the text, the Assembly approved several posts for the United Nations Mission in Nepal and the United Nations Integrated Office in Burundi. It also requested the Secretary-General, in executing the mandate of the Nepal Mission, to ensure the timely recruitment of staff, effective and efficient use of resources under operational costs for facilities and infrastructure, air transportation, and communication. It also requested the Secretary-General to improve coordination among United Nations entities operating in the Mission area, and to report on that in the context of the second performance report for 2006-2007.
The Acting Assembly President also informed the Assembly that Palau had made the necessary payments to reduce its arrears below the amount specified in Article 19 of the Charter.
Also participating in the commemoration were the representatives of Myanmar (speaking on behalf of the Asian States), Georgia (on behalf of the European States), Haiti (on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean States) and the United States (the host country).
The Assembly will meet again at a time and date to be announced.
BONIFACE CHIDYAUSIKU ( Zimbabwe), Acting President of the General Assembly, speaking on behalf of Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, currently in the Middle East, said the trans-Atlantic slave trade stood as one of the most inhumane enterprises in history, which began in the fifteenth century when European kingdoms were able to reach Africa and expand overseas. The slave trade had been driven by colonial expansion, emerging capitalist economies and the insatiable demand for commodities –- with racism and discrimination serving to legitimize the trade. “Fortunes were made, and financial institutions flourished on the back of human bondage,” he said.
He also said Africa was impoverished, while it contributed to the capitalist development and wealth of Europe and other parts of the world. African traders, such as Anera Duke, and powerful tribal leaders also enslaved and sold Africans. Some African rulers resisted the devastation, most notably: King Alfonso of Kongo in the sixteenth century, Queen Njingha Mbandi of Ndongo in the seventeenth century, and King Agaja Trudo of Dahomey in the eighteenth century. The date 25 March 2007 marked 200 years since a parliamentary bill had been passed to abolish the slave trade in the then British Empire, which marked the beginnings of the end for the trans-Atlantic traffic in human beings. It was not until 1833, however, that the act emancipating British slaves finally had been passed.
“It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time,” he said. The bicentenary offered a chance to say how profoundly disgraceful the slave trade had been, and an opportunity to pay tribute to the courage and moral conviction of all those who had campaigned for its abolition. While reflecting on the past, the unspeakable cruelty that persisted today also must be acknowledged. Slavery came in many guises around the world -– such as bonded labour, forced recruitment of child soldiers, human trafficking and the illegal sex trade. Today’s commemoration must encourage all to live up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, and to redouble efforts to stop human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery.
ASHA-ROSE MIGIRO, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that she was “moved” today by the opportunity to address the Assembly as it commemorated the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, the story of the end of the slave trade must always be remembered at the United Nations, as both the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expressly backed the right of all individuals to live in freedom and be able to exercise and enjoy their fundamental rights. Today, the Assembly was remembering those who had suffered on the long march through Africa and had perished in the Middle Passage. It was commemorating the memory of those millions that had survived those hardships only to suffer deeper humiliations at the other end, forced into labour that helped build prosperous societies in which they had no rights.
She said that, at the same time, the Assembly must recognize that, even as the practice of slavery had flourished, slaves had risen up against their persecutors and abolitionists had raised the call for freedom. Moreover, as the United Nations was commemorating the bicentennial of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and celebrating the fact that all people were now born in equality and freedom, it must also recognize that insidious forms of slavery still existed. All Member States must recognize that there should be no place for subjugation, mass rape and other war crimes perpetrated against the most vulnerable during times of conflict. Children should not be forced to serve as soldiers or forced into labour.
She called on all States to try and become more keenly aware of the slavery and the human trafficking “taking place in the shadows all around us.” She urged Member States to take action, among other ways, by adopting and implementing all relevant United Nations instruments and to join the United Nations-backed Global Initiative against Human Trafficking, launched today in London. That programme aimed to bring together civil society, the media, academia, Governments and others to generate the political will and resources needed to combat the global scourge of trafficking. Joining that initiative was indeed “a debt we owe to all those we honour today,” she said, adding that many in the past had stood up for freedom, and today, the United Nations must do the same. Member States must act together to combat impunity with unwavering commitment -- they must apply relentless and continued scrutiny.
DENZIL L. DOUGLAS, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Sustainable Development, Information and Technology, Tourism, Culture and Sports of Saint Kitts and Nevis, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said that for those in the Hall that had come from the Caribbean, Africa, the Latin American and Caribbean States, and the United States, the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade 200 years ago signalled the end of the “barbaric and horrendous” legal trafficking in human cargo. Millions had perished during the trade, and millions more had been subjected to lives of despair, brutality, rape and humiliation. The continents of Africa, North America, South America and Europe had been inextricably linked by that appalling practice, he said, noting that the inhumane trade of people had indeed linked the world with Africa, from Cuba and the wider Latin American and Caribbean to Mauritius and the Seychelles.
“The trans-Atlantic slave trade was much more than an economic practice. It violated the basic moral laws of human interaction,” he said, noting that it was commendable that leaders from some of the former colonial powers had expressed “deep sorrow” for the practice. He hoped that leaders would follow suit, while also recognizing the importance of offering the descendants of African slaves, who had been brought to the Caribbean and the Americas, a “complete and unequivocal apology.” It was undisputed that such nations had been developed on the blood, sweat and tears of the enslaved forefathers of those peoples, and it was only right and decent to make amends and extend apologies for such inhumane practices.
“No country that was engaged in the slave trade and slavery could justifiably claim support for human rights without first offering an official apology and atonement in the form of reparation,” he said, adding that it was only under such circumstances that the descendants of slaves could truly forgive and move forward in the world. “From the perspective of the people of the Caribbean, the descendants of slaves, these two matters will remain crucial to us for the indignity, suffering and the haunting legacies we live with as a result of the slave trade and slavery,” he said.
DUMISANI S. KUMALO ( South Africa), speaking on behalf of the African Group of States, said slavery might have been about the sale and subjugation of Africans, but its impact has been felt throughout the entire African continent. “Up to this day, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean are said to remain dark and murky with the blood of Africans stolen all along the western coast as far south as the windy coast of Namibia and all the way to the dry shores of the Sahara.” Two hundred years later, Africa was still nursing the wounds of slavery. The Assembly, in its resolution on the Commemoration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, recalled that the slave trade was at the heart of the profound social and economic inequality, hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice that continued to impact people of African descent everywhere.
He said that at the historic World Conference against Racism held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, Member States had acknowledged that “slavery and the slave trade were a crime against humanity and should always have been so”. As the world marked the halfway point to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, it had become clear that Africa might be the only continent lagging in the eradication of poverty. Statistics suggested that a cow in Europe received far more subsidy than an African child received in development aid. “As we commemorate the end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and honour the memory of those who died in the Middle Passage or in the resistance and revolt against enslavement, our resolve to value human life regardless of colour, sex and creed remains unshaken. We value human life, whether it is in the life of the descendants of former slaves or of the former slave-owners.”
Paying a tribute to Phyllis Wheatley, a slave girl from Senegal brought to America, he said she specialized in composing poems celebrating the lives of the owners. As nobody believed she could write poetry, John Hancock and fellow luminaries had to confirm that indeed a slave girl from Senegal had written them. A book of her poetry had been first published in England, and she had gone on to work as a domestic aid and died in poverty. He then read one of her poems, entitled “To be brought from Africa…”.
U KYAW TINT SWE (Myanmar), speaking on behalf of the Group of Asian States, said the story of the African people and their descendants in the Caribbean and the Americans was one that revealed one of the most appalling periods in human history. It was also the story of human resilience, courage and survival. The slave trade had not only destroyed the people who had been forced into servitude, but also the fragile local economies and societies in Africa. The 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act also marked the beginning of the 200 years of struggle for recognition, atonement and rights -- to be free from the discrimination that 500 years of slavery had left on societies.
He said the United Nations and the world community had made notable progress to address the negative impacts of slavery, among other things through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 2001 Durban Declaration –- which pronounced slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity –- and the General Assembly resolution that had proclaimed 2004 as the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition. Assembly Resolution 61/91 had marked another milestone by commemorating the 200th anniversary. “We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future. We must ensure that our succeeding generations learn the truth; act upon these lessons learnt and remain vigilant so that no human being suffers the same fate.”
IRAKLI ALASANIA (Georgia), speaking on behalf of the Group of Eastern European States, said the anniversary was a time to honour the memory of those who had died as a result of slavery and to acknowledge that its legacy –- human trafficking and other contemporary forms of slavery, racism, xenophobia and bigotry –- continued to affect people of different racial descent on all continents. Although it was no longer legal for people to be traded as commodities, millions of people were still forced by poverty to work and live in slavery-like conditions. Contemporary forms of slavery were flourishing. Demand for contemporary slaves, ineffective prosecution of criminals and inadequate protection of labour rights also contributed to the growth of modern-day slavery.
LEO MÉRORÈS ( Haiti), speaking on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean States, said the Assembly was paying tribute to the millions who perished in the slave trade, one of mankind’s most inhumane and barbaric periods. Indeed, all the peoples of Africa and the Americas would bear the weight of that horrific time for years to come. It was incumbent upon one to recognize slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity. The Assembly and the United Nations, with the bicentennial commemoration, were taking essential steps towards promoting and ensuring the recognition of human rights for all. At the same time, the international community should exert every effort to end all forms of slavery, racism and xenophobia, many of which still existed in the shadows today.
The international community had the duty to remember and ensure that the world never again resorted to such inhuman practices, and to ensure that so-called modern forms of slavery were stamped out. He stressed that the remnants of colonialism –- namely poverty, oppression and depression gripping many parts of the world –- required broad cooperation in order to be redressed. “So today, we have to recognize not how far we have gone, but also how far we have to go to achieve a final victory over the tragedy of slavery,” he said, appealing to the Assembly and the wider international community to join hands to ensure dignity and prosperity for all humankind.
ROSEMARY BANKS (New Zealand), speaking on behalf of the Group of Western European and Other States, said that it had been more than 200 years since United States President Thomas Jefferson had signed legislation to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the British Parliament had passed similar legislation prohibiting the trading of slaves throughout the British Empire. “Those landmark actions signalled the beginning of the end of one of the longest and most sustained assaults on the dignity and worth of the human being in recorded history,” she said. As United Nations Member States, all had gathered today with a solemn pledge to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person. “We must never forget the tragic reality and consequences of slavery,” she added.
But sadly, not all the shadows of slavery had been vanquished, she said, stressing that even today, millions of fellow human beings were subjected to practices that fell within the United Nations definition of enslavement. Sexual and debt enslavement and forcible involvement of children in armed conflict were among the many examples of practices which harked back to the dark days of centuries past. “As Member States of this institution, we must be vigilant in opposing all modern day forms of human enslavement,” she said, urging the international community to draw from the lessons of past wisdom to guide future conduct.
EMYR JONES PARRY (United Kingdom) said today was a moment to reflect on past actions, when 12 million Africans had been loaded onto slave ships to be brought to the New World. Those were acts that ran against every grain of humanity and that remained a scar on the conscience of all. Today also provided an opportunity to celebrate the many who had struggled to abolish the barbaric trans-Atlantic slave trade. They were owed “a countless debt” for leading the tireless campaign that had delivered such basic human rights. Yesterday marked 200 years since Parliament had passed the historic 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the result of an 18-year campaign by the British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce. Twenty five years later, the Slavery Abolition Act had been enacted. “We have a duty to ensure that the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade are never forgotten.”
The United Nations Global Initiative to fight Human Trafficking was being officially launched in the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. Much more remained to be done to abolish the forms of slavery that continued to exist today in many parts of the world. Eliminating bonded labour, the forced recruitment of child soldiers and the trafficking of human beings required the same commitment and determination today that had been demonstrated by the abolitionists 200 years ago. “But it requires this commitment on a global scale and with the determination of the whole international community,” he said.
In 1936, William Prescott, a former slave, had said, “They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave,” Mr. Jones Parry said that today, those words must be proven wrong and “we must never forget their strength or their bravery. We must remember this slavery, and honour their memory. And in so doing, we must commit to ensure that no living man, woman or chid can be subjected to the barbarism of modern slavery.”
RICHARD TERRELL MILLER ( United States) said that, for more that three centuries, the trans-Atlantic slave trade had defiled a continent and a people. The tragedy of the millions of unknown souls who had suffered, died, and been lost to history, should not be forgotten. The courageous individuals who had risked their lives and fortunes to bring that barbaric trade to an end should be honoured. “The struggle of mankind is, in a very real sense, a struggle against sin and injustice. It is thus profoundly important that we recognize and celebrate our personal and collective victories,” he added. In 1807, men and women recognized the sickness among them and had said “enough –- be gone”.
He said the voices of the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and of those that had brought about its end, still echoed here today. In 2007, the moral challenges were not very different. Trafficking in human beings and slavery persisted in many forms and in many parts of the world. There were about 12.3 million people enslaved in forced or bonded labour, sexual servitude and involuntary servitude. “The purchase and sale of human beings was not then, is not now, and can never be, acceptable,” he stated.
“Whenever men and women suffer violence, deprivation, or injustice, we share the tragedy, and the responsibility. Nowhere is this more clear than here in this house, the United Nations, dedicated to the well-being of all the people of the world. We cannot trumpet the moral awakening of the nineteenth century, and ignore the tragic victims of the twenty-first. So, while it is right to celebrate the anniversary of this historic event, as civilized people and nations, we have work to do,” he said.
REX NETTLEFORD, Vice-Chancellor Emeritus, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, said the Caribbean was arguably the living laboratory of the dynamism of the encounters between Africa and Europe on foreign soil, and both with the Native Americans who had inhabited the real estate of the Americas. The Caribbean area housed a civilization with its own inner logic and inner consistency. The African presence played a catalytic role in its social formation. Quoting Jimmy Cliff, a reggae star, as singing: “You stole my history …cut out my tongue, so I can’t communicate…”, he said it was fitting that the Caribbean should break the silence, “that second most powerful act of oppression which the African presence in the Americas had suffered for the past 500 years along the slave route”.
The contribution by the African presence to that truth was part of the mission of the Slave Route Project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he said. The African presence on the route continued to speak of those gone, those living and those yet unborn –- “a celebratory incantation of a philosophy of life and of the hope-in-despair which has sustained survival and beyond, in defiance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery.” It was the story of Africa in the Americas for the past half millennium, “the stuff of great literature, great art, and great social structures.” A process of cross-fertilization had taken place despite the “stubborn persistence of the rules of representation which decree the denigration of things African as well as a debilitating racism against all who carry the stain of Africa in their veins”.
He said the African diaspora cried out for recognition and status in the new dispensation that went by the name of globalization. From the perspective of those in the ex-slave, post-colonial Caribbean, that globalization threatened to be a calculus of inequality rather than an opportunity to make a dash towards universal human dignity and individual freedom in practice. The aim for diasporic Africa must be to help determine the mainstream and not merely to float along with the currents. The challenge was to have the new globalization veer away from inherited “obscene” habits of racialized division of the world into the rich, industrialized North and the poor, non-Caucasian South.
The main point of the reparation advocacy was by no means seeking a hand-out of 500 pounds sterling per person to descendants of the oppressed, but rather positing serious investment by countries which had been enriched by the “heinous crime of the slave trade and slavery, in the human resource development of countries that had suffered, he said. “To cross the boundaries of hate, intolerance, discrimination, racial arrogance, class exclusivity, intellectual snobbery, and cultural denigration, which constitute the legacy of that horrific past, the African diaspora must continue with its time-worn strategies of demarginalization, reinforcing the intensity of the creative work in the expansion of communication arts serving humankind”.
He said: “It is the full grasp of the creative diversity of all of humankind that provides the source for tolerance, generosity of spirit, forgiveness, respect for the other, that the new millennium will require if it is to house the brave new world with the human being as centre of the cosmos.” It was the source, as well, of the patience needed for the human-scale development which all the grand objectives of the United Nations declarations envision. The African diaspora was more than equipped to enter the dialogue among civilizations, having seeded the germ of a civilization itself. Such dialogue, after all, was all about the quest for peace, tolerance, justice, liberty, sustainable development, trust, respect and human understanding. It should not be seen as a threat, but rather as a guarantee for peace.
In closing remarks, Acting Assembly President CHIDYAUSIKU said that today’s gathering was a confirmation of the international community’s commitment to end slavery anywhere and everywhere. “It is a cause we can all stand up for…in the memory of all those who suffered under the yoke of slavery, we must rise to the challenges we face today, for the well-being of humanity,” he declared.
He also stressed that the unspeakable cruelty of the past persisted even today in modern guises such as bonded and child labour and the forced recruitment of child soldiers. While he hoped that today’s ceremony would help the global community to come to terms with past injustices, he also hoped it would help make all more resolute in their determination to end every modern-day manifestations of slavery, in particular the scourge of human trafficking.
* *** *