|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Sixty-fifth General Assembly
81st Meeting (AM)
By Honouring Victims of Slavery, Secretary-General Tells General Assembly,
Some Measure of Dignity Restored to Those ‘Mercilessly Stripped of It’
Cycle of Forgetting Must Be Broken to Overcome Legacy of Humanity’s
‘Darkest Chapters’, Speakers Urge in Commemorating Day of Remembrance
Marking the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, senior United Nations and Government officials today honoured the “heroes” that had fought and died to overcome the legacy of one of humanity’s “darkest chapters”, and called for action on behalf of millions who were still being subjected to intolerable forms of forced labour and exploitation.
“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,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he opened a special meeting of the General Assembly, capping a week of events held at Headquarters in New York and around the world that included art exhibitions, cultural performances, and a global video dialogue focusing on education about the transatlantic slave trade.
Recalling that the theme of this year’s activities was “The Living Legacy of 30 Million Untold Stories”, the Secretary-General acknowledged the brave slaves who rose up despite mortal risk; the abolitionists who challenged the status quo; and the activists today who fought intolerance and injustice. “Whether renowned or unsung, these heroes show that the pursuit of human dignity is the most powerful force of all,” he said, adding that by also honouring slavery’s victims, “we restore some measure of dignity to those who had been so mercilessly stripped of it.”
Yet, he said that while legalized slavery had 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 was why education about the trade was important, including through United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) programmes, such as the Slave Route Initiative and the General History of Africa. “By examining the prevailing assumptions and beliefs that allowed the practice to flourish, we raise awareness about the continued dangers of racism and hatred,” he said.
General Assembly President Joseph Deiss, recalling slavery and the slave trade as among the worst human rights violations in history, said the Day of Remembrance offered a chance to renew commitment to public awareness about the legacy of the 400 year-long slave trade, the dangers of racism and the universality of human rights. At the same time, it was an opportunity to remember that two centuries after slavery’s official abolition, there were more than 10 million people around the world trapped in forced labour today.
Indeed, debt bondage, the least known form of contemporary slavery, was the most widely used method of enslaving people, he said, echoing the words of the Secretary-General. Further, more than 100 million children around the world were exposed to the worst forms of child labour, working in illicit activities like prostitution, drug trafficking and armed conflict. “These numbers are shocking,” he stressed, and urged living up to the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as there was no economic, cultural or historical excuse for slavery continuing in the twenty-first century.
One highlight of today’s events, which featured a performance by Tricia Keens-Douglas of Grenada, and by the cultural groups of Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, was the keynote address by Ruth Simmons, President of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who traced her decision to pursue an in-depth examination of Brown’s complicated historical relationship with slavery and the subsequent actions taken to engage the on- and off-campus community.
In her wide-ranging address, she hailed the Assembly’s commemorative activities as an important international contribution to the long-standing effort to recognize the consequences of “this monumental violation of human rights”. She emphasized that a major part of that recognition was the acknowledgement that nations could not fully embrace the principles of fairness, decency and equality without taking into account the heinous acts committed on their watch that violated those very principles. Indeed, an account of the slave trade and subsequent establishment of the terrible institution that became the foundation of the wealth of many nations, rested upon telling the whole truth about the struggle to ensure equality and respect among all peoples.
In that regard, she said the efforts of UNESCO and other international agencies and groups working to promote wider recognition of the issue were invaluable. Everyone must know the truth: that in the interest in commerce, nations permitted the systematic destruction of human beings and obliteration of their connections not only to their lands, but their families, cultures, “and indeed their very souls”. The inheritors of such a terrible legacy had been left to “a patchwork existence”; their lives a tragic puzzle riddled with so many holes and gaps that they could never hope to find the matches to fill them.
She said that while it was sadly true that others had experienced such torment, “nowhere has it been more extensive, and as complete, as in the transatlantic slave trade”. “So what is one to do,” she asked, recalling that there had been many courageous people over the years that had fought to overturn such wrongs, even though they knew that those wrongs had taken “deep and strenuously resistant root”. The self-interest that inspired the evil deeds was powerful and it often overcame common decency and good will.
Another challenge was that once eradicated, the world too easily forgot terrible crimes of the past. “This cycle of forgetting must finally be broken,” she declared, adding that our task in these times must be to ensure that the past was not forgotten so that wrongs did not take root again or give rise to further injustices. Universities were vital links in that process as they were charged with recording history accurately and ensuring that the past was not erased.
She cautioned, however, that history could indeed be erased or written in a way that made light of offences or denied their existence. “And the deniers are a breed apart,” she said, encouraging that international community to face down deniers of all stripes by putting in front of them solid evidence of stark truths.
Universities must also face their own truths, she said, especially those in the United States that had clear links to slavery or were slavery-founded with the largess of those directly involved in slave trade. Indeed, as more information had emerged in recent years, it was learned that many senior college officials, teachers and even students had kept slaves. That truth had lingered in the shadows at many universities for decades. Her own University, Brown, had taken steps to recover its difficult past and prove that such acts — or denial of their existence — had no place in an institution that purported to uphold the truth.
In 2003, she had initiated a study to involve the campus community “in the search for the meaning of our past”, she continued. When told that what the exercise uncovered would not be easy to incorporate into the university’s present, she had said: “Well, it doesn’t have to be.” It soon became clear that some of Brown University’s founders and benefactors had been involved in or had made their wealth from the New England slave trade. Moreover, Rhode Island, it turned out, had been one of the linchpins of that trade in the region.
She went on to say that the process had explored the meaning and implications of the benefits the University had received from that commerce. Ultimately, Brown’s three-year self-examination had compelled the University to rewrite its own history, but with a full and truthful accounting of what transpired in its early days. It had also led the University to ramp up its activities to combat human trafficking in all its dimensions, and among other things, to establish a centre on campus for that purpose. Brown had also scaled up its efforts to help the children and young people of its home city of Providence, to deal with the challenges they faced, and had begun a series of programmes to train public school teachers.
All those were but small steps and were meant to set in motion activities that would be a “constant reminder of the obligations to be drum majors for justice, as Martin Luther King contended,” she said. Indeed, egregious wrongs demanded action and any action that healed must cast light on the lasting effects of past human rights violations.
Too little attention had been paid to the enduring impact of the transatlantic slave trade, and she hoped the United Nations-led worldwide process would lead to greater understanding of the past and throw a spotlight on ways to counter modern-day abuses of human rights. Brown was proud to be a partner in the global attempt to set the record straight, she said, honouring her own forbearers, who, “despite inhuman conditions, survived and made a life in an alien land”.
Another highlight was the presentation by Ama Tutu Muna, Minister of Culture of Cameroon, of a ceremonial drum to the United Nations, which was accepted by Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro. In a brief address, the Minister said the drum’s materials were indigenous to Cameroon. Its panels recounted the history of slaves, from their deportation and ill-treatment, to their freedom and return to their roots.
Among the other participants, Nguema Owono, Deputy Prime Minister of Health and Social Welfare in charge of Social Affairs and Human Rights of Equatorial Guinea, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said the International Day had become the ideal platform for honouring, not only the victims of slavery, but those courageous African slaves who had been at the vanguard of the fight to end the Transatlantic slave trade and to dismantle the institution of slavery in the Americas.
“Far too often, the history books have not accorded the enslaved Africans who made the ultimate sacrifice to fight for freedom,” he said, adding that without their commitment, the most tragic chapter of one of history’s darkest stories would have endured for another century. He hailed the theme of this year’s celebration, which spoke to the narrative of every African ripped from their homeland and transported to the Americas. Such recognition was crucial because who they were and where they came from had ultimately been lost when they crossed the Middle Passage.
Raymond O. Wolfe of Jamaica, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said the theme begged for poignant reflection on the vast reservoir of voices that had been silenced, from a people whose expressions and contributions had been muted or suppressed for generations under a brutal system of trade in humans from Africa. His delegation rejected the theory that slavery was “an issue of the past that we don’t need to debate”, particularly because the dark legacy of the slave system — its hatred, its prejudice and its racial discrimination — still lived on in many parts of the world today.
While there were those who wished to silence the debate on slavery, CARICOM countries, all former slave societies, believed the story needed to be told “because lessons of our past inform the present, and most certainly, our future”, Those countries were seeking to counter the legacy of slavery by inculcating new values and attitudes in the youth for the hopes of generations to come. The Caribbean region had given birth to Haiti, the first country to triumph over slavery and the architects of that brutal institution. The Haitian revolution had been a turning point in world history, but he noted that it had taken another hundred years for the remainder of CARICOM States to free themselves from the vestiges of the salve trade.
He noted that the International Day of Remembrance was merely one facet of the collective commitment to addressing the issue, and in that regard, he was delighted to report that, with the assistance of Member States from the African Group and other partners, the drive to erect at United Nations Headquarters a permanent memorial to acknowledge the tragedy and in commemoration of slavery and the Transatlantic salve trade was making tangible progress. Over the past year, CARICOM had advanced negotiations with UNESCO on the international design competition for the memorial, launched a website, and secured more than $900,000 for the trust fund to implement the initiative. He encouraged others to contribute to the overall $4.5 million effort.
Rosemary di Carlo, of the United States, said the commemoration was not confined to a single day, but continued daily to chronicle slavery’s legacy, celebrate the victories of those who fought against it and end forms of modern slavery, including human trafficking. The United States was committed to preserving the history of slavery, as the country must not forget the extent of human suffering involved. The United States celebrated African American History month in February, which focused this year on African Americans who fought for freedom during the Civil War. The United States also was among the primary backers of UNESCO’s transatlantic slave trade education programme.
At home, African Americans had strengthened the United States by leading reforms, breaking down barriers, and seeking to keep the country true to its founding principles, she said. As part of the 2011 International Year for People of African Descent, the United States was engaged in programmes to highlight the contributions of people of African descent communities around the world. Her Government was also partnering with Brazil on an anti-racism curriculum project at UNESCO. The United States had launched an Inter-agency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which was working to improve the way victims were protected and trafficking cases were prosecuted within its borders.
Also speaking today were the representatives of the Bahamas (on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean States Group), Latvia and Iceland (on behalf of the Western European and Other States Group).
The special meeting also heard a pre-recorded address by Irina Bokova, Director-General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
* *** *