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Secretary-General's Message


New York, 25 March 2008

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Ambassador Mahiga, Chairman of the African Union,
Ambassador Hackett, Chairman of the CARICOM Ambassadors’ Caucus,
Distinguished Congressman Payne,
Mr. Belafonte,
Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

I am deeply moved to be with you for this solemn remembrance of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, one of the greatest atrocities in history. This unparalleled global tragedy claimed untold millions of lives over four centuries, and left a terrible legacy that continues to dehumanize and oppress people around the world to this day.

 The forced movement of West Africans across the Atlantic happened on an unprecedented scale of brutality and inhumanity, killings and massive abuses. Millions died without a burial, without a trace.

This chapter in human history is all the more reprehensible because the trade yielded significant prosperity in countries where slavery was perpetrated under colour of law. These States paid no monetary price for their progress, but they incurred a terrible cost in the form of the entrenched racism that we still battle today. The slave trade left an indelible mark, not only because it offended the human conscience, but also because it was a result of a shocking complicity of nations that participated in the name of “commerce” for 400 years.

Considering the enormous historic proportions and impact, it is a cruel irony that little is known about the slave trade. That is why today is so important. We must remember and honour those who spent their lives as slaves, who were defined under laws as nothing more than chattel, property and real estate, who were essentially treated not as humans but as “things”.

The question of how to atone for this crime is difficult to answer. We must acknowledge the great lapse in moral judgment that allowed it to happen. We must urge present and future generations to avoid repeating history. We must acknowledge the contributions that enslaved Africans made to civilization. And countries that prospered from the slave trade must examine the origins of present-day social inequality and work to unravel mistrust between communities.

Above all, even as we mourn the atrocities committed against the countless victims, we take heart from the courage of slaves who rose up to overcome the system which oppressed them. These brave individuals, and the abolitionist movements they inspired, should serve as an example to us all as we continue to battle the contemporary forms of slavery that stain our world today.

In our time, forced labour, sexual exploitation and human trafficking afflict millions of people worldwide, including children toiling under unspeakably abusive conditions. Racism and racial discrimination still take a serious and sometimes deadly toll. We are all shamed by these repugnant crimes. And we are all challenged to respond.

How fitting, therefore, that this historic first International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade falls in the year of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article four of the Declaration tells us, and I quote: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” End quote.

Let us give life to those words. Let us honour the victims of the slave trade by remembering their struggle. Let us carry it forward until no person is deprived of liberty, dignity and human rights.

 Thank you very much.