– As delivered –

Statement by H.E. Mrs. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly

25 March 2019

Esteemed António Guterres, Secretary General,

Permanent Representatives, Delegates:

There are chapters in the history of humanity so tragic that just remembering them causes us great pain. At the same time, memory is necessary to prevent, reconcile and specially to avoid repeating the past.

Slavery is one of those tragic moments in our history.

For three centuries, millions of human beings -men, women and children- were brutally uprooted from their homes in Africa and were bought and sold as objects, stripped of all dignity.

Each of those persons suffered the horrors of exploitation, violence and exclusion and the dramatic consequences of it all still linger in our world.

On this international day, we pay tribute to the victims of this abhorrent practice. We honor their resistance, their courage and their fortitude.

I would like to remember, in particular, all women who were slaves. Besides enduring endless forced labour and terrible acts of violence, they also suffered the physical exploitation of perpetuating the slavery trade chain.

Nevertheless, these women were essential in maintaining the dignity of their communities. Many of them led insurrections and became active members of abolitionist movements like Harriet Tubman, who freed hundreds of slaves that were trapped in southern plantations in the United States and who dedicated her whole life to this cause. Naming these women is an act of justice and reparation.


Last December we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document inaugurated a new era of equality and freedom for all, based in human dignity. Article 4 stipulates, in a definitive way, that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

For many, however, this precept is far from being fulfilled. Around the world, it is estimated that more than 40 million people are subjected to modern slavery. 71% of the victims of trafficking in persons are women and girls.

This is not only alarming, it is unacceptable in the 21st Century.

But this is not only about denouncing this excruciating reality, it is about fighting the structural causes that sustain sexual and labour exploitation, domestic servitude, forced marriage and so many other inhuman forms of subjugation, such as racial discrimination and the prejudices that classify and segregate persons according to the color of their skin.

Racism does not only limit the full development of afro-descendant persons and is an insult to their dignity; it also deprives societies from having a peaceful coexistence and a true and inclusive development.

Whenever I had the opportunity to visit the Ark of Return monument, the moment has been profound and powerful. This beautiful and striking memorial is a reminder of the suffering caused by human greed, but is also a symbol of our collective promise, in name of all the peoples of the world, that we will not return to the past, that we will work tirelessly to never repeat that tragic passage of human history.

Raising awareness, education and reflection with a critical view, are fundamental. We must pay special attention to young generations, work with them, and include them in initiatives to alert about the dangers of racism, intolerance and social exclusion.

There are chapters in the history of humanity so tragic that just remembering them causes us great pain. At the same time, memory is necessary to prevent, reconcile and specially to avoid repeating the past.

Slavery is one of those tragic moments in our history.

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés

President of the UN General Assembly

In that sense, I wish to praise the election of this topic to commemorate this year. Historically, the communities of afro-descendants have not only made art and creativity a vessel for resistance and demand justice but they have also made extraordinary contributions to the history of art, to the collective imagination and memory of their countries. Afro-descendant men and women: writers, filmmakers, painters, musicians and sculptors have revolutionized and improved the aesthetic matrix of the whole world.

As a poet, I have no doubt of the transformative power of art and its potential to heal wounds, build bridges and rebuild the social fabric.

Also, art is an agent of change; it contributes to collective reflection and promoting reforms in the political, social and economic systems.

Nowadays, many artists who fight against racial discrimination are targets of hate speeches and attacks, just like many human rights defenders. We have the political and moral responsibility of not abandoning them.

I highlight the various educational and cultural programs and the initiatives of the United Nations system, Member States and civil society to raise awareness on slavery and racism. Similarly, we must also continue to promote the International Decade for People of African Descent.

And, of course, we must double our efforts to fulfill the 2030 Agenda, which offers us a framework for action to close the gaps that continue to condemn afro-descendant persons and communities to marginalization.


To conclude, I would like to quote a beautiful verse of the poem “Still I Rise” from writer Maya Angelou. An ode to pride, resilience and hope of our afro-descendant brothers and sisters, and I quote:


Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise. I rise. I rise.”


Thank you.