Modern Forms of Slavery Must End to Eliminate Legacy of Bigotry, Delegates Say, as General Assembly Commemorates Transatlantic Slave Trade Victims

25 March 2010

Modern Forms of Slavery Must End to Eliminate Legacy of Bigotry, Delegates Say, as General Assembly Commemorates Transatlantic Slave Trade Victims

25 March 2010
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fourth General Assembly


80th Meeting (PM)

Modern Forms of Slavery Must End to Eliminate Legacy of Bigotry, Delegates

Say, as General Assembly Commemorates Transatlantic Slave Trade Victims

Caribbean Representative Calls Trauma Scar ‘14 Countries Wide, and 400 Years Deep’

While atrocities perpetuated during the 400-year-long transatlantic slave trade were “grotesque” crimes against humanity never to be repeated, slavery and slave-like practices had emerged in the modern forms of racism, sex trafficking and forced labour, which must end if the future was to be rid of the legacy of bigotry, delegates in the General Assembly said today during a special meeting to commemorate the International Day of Remembrance for Victims.

This year’s commemoration featured two musical performances, a reading and a keynote address by Tony Bogues, Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.  Held under the theme “Expressing Our Freedom through Culture”, the special meeting was dedicated to Haiti, whose revolution leaders ushered in the demise of slavery in the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States.

“Slavery is abhorrent,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in opening remarks delivered on his behalf by Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.  It was explicitly prohibited by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations had reaffirmed that principle many times, including in the Durban Declaration, adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism.

He urged the Assembly to create a climate in which such cruelty was inconceivable, most notably by honouring the victims and remembering past injustices, to ensure that such systematic abuse of human rights was never repeated.  “If we are wise, we will use this legacy for good.  We will recognize that it is clear evidence of what can happen if intolerance, racism and greed are allowed to triumph,” the Secretary-General said.

Echoing that call, Christopher Hackett ( Barbados), speaking on behalf of General Assembly President Ali Abdussalam Treki, said the slave trade was among the worst human rights violations in history.  It was totally unacceptable that in the present age, States still struggled against such practices, he added, emphasizing that the United Nations must continue to deploy all efforts to bridge the knowledge gap.  Major historical events and facts could no longer be ignored, and the Organization must be “vocal and visible” on that issue.  Transforming the slogan “Never again” into action would be the best homage to victims, he said.

Equatorial Guinea’s representative, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said slavery and the slave trade were crimes against humanity that had been at the heart of profound social and economic inequalities, and which continued to affect people of African descent worldwide.  Member States must sustain the momentum from the first commemoration in 2007, he stressed, calling for the continuation of education and outreach programmes and welcoming the initiative by Caribbean States to erect a permanent memorial.  “As we commemorate the end of slavery and honour the memory of the innocent victims of these heinous crimes, we need to be mindful also of the contemporary forms of slavery,” he said, adding that the annual commemoration should be used as a reminder to eliminate those new forms of slavery.

Similarly, the delegate of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), called the slave ship ‑‑ and the barbarism it represented ‑‑ “a brutalization of the psyche of a people so violent and enduring that it has created a shared cultural memory of the trauma”.  For the Caribbean region, it was a scar “14 countries wide and 400 years deep”, recognized in the similarities between brothers and sisters on the African continent and their violently uprooted kin.

Highlighting the central importance of resolution 64/15 (2009), which welcomed CARICOM’s initiative to erect a permanent memorial at United Nations Headquarters, he encouraged States to assist in the construction of that memorial through contributions to a trust fund administered by the United Nations Office for Partnerships.

The representative of the United States, remembering the more than 10 million people taken from across the Atlantic, often to his country’s shores, offered suggestions for ending today’s “pernicious” forms of slavery.  Protecting victims required not only implementing human trafficking laws and punishing traffickers, but also creating stronger medical and social services for victims to reclaim their rights, he said.

Delivering his keynote address, Mr. Boguesstressed the need to understand the structural legacies left behind by events of the past.  “For the pain of the lash, the whipping, the capacity of one to place another under the rule of arbitrary individual will ‑‑ to make another person non-human, to create a living corpse, a living dead ‑‑ all these things we recall in part because they must never occur again,” he said.  “But it was not a single event.  Atlantic racial slavery operated as a system of human domination for over four centuries.”

He said the abolition of slavery under the 1805 Haitian Constitution had preceded the United Nations Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples by 156 years.  It had emerged from a revolutionary war against the slavery of the French colonial State in 1791, he said.  “The Constitution was an extraordinary achievement.  It was in many ways the zenith of a revolutionary war against a social system in which human beings were deemed […] property.”

To former slaves, freedom was about overcoming obstacles and having the capacity to act and be creative, he continued, noting that human rights could not be realized without that.  In remembering the transatlantic slave trade, Haiti should be thought less as an outcast nation of the West, than embraced for its historic contribution to human freedom as a central element of the modern world.  The memory of the ex-slaves and their historical achievements beckoned the international community to rethink its policies of trade, aid, economic development, and how to tackle global inequities.  “As we rethink these issues, Haiti may lead the way,” he added.

Elsie Chounoune, President of the Haitian Association of the United Nations, gave a human face to the commemoration by reading a passage from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, known also as “Gustavus Vassa, the African”, who experienced abduction and the Middle Passage as an 11-year-old.

Terror-filled, the story went, Olaudah had been bound, brought to a slave ship filled with a multitude of black people, and placed in the hold, where he found the stench intolerably loathsome and pestilent.  Olaudah had survived and overcome his ordeal, pushed by a survival instinct typical of millions of others formerly enslaved and then freed.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Afghanistan (on behalf of the Asian States), Ukraine (on behalf of the Eastern European States), Panama (on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean States) and Germany (on behalf of Western European and Other States).

The General Assembly will reconvene at a time and date to be announced.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.