Ending Contemporary Slavery Would Be Best Way to Honour Victims of Transatlantic Slave Trade, General Assembly Commemoration Event Told

25 March 2013

Ending Contemporary Slavery Would Be Best Way to Honour Victims of Transatlantic Slave Trade, General Assembly Commemoration Event Told

25 March 2013
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-seventh General Assembly


68th Meeting (PM)

Ending Contemporary Slavery Would be Best Way to Honour Victims of Transatlantic

Slave Trade, General Assembly Commemoration Event Told


Keynote Speaker Hails ‘Agency of the Oppressed’

Seen after Emancipation Proclamation as Blacks Fought to Win Their Own Freedom

Eliminating human trafficking, child labour, sex slavery and other modern forms of slavery, as well as racial discrimination and related intolerance would be the best way to honour the death and suffering imposed on victims of the brutal transatlantic slave trade, diplomats and senior United Nations officials said at a Headquarters commemoration today.

Speaking at the event commemorating the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the gathering was the culmination of “a series of powerful remembrances at the United Nations”.  By recalling the struggle of victims of the transatlantic slave trade, it was possible to teach future generations.

As well as prominent resisters and abolitionists, the Day provided an opportunity to “listen to the voices of the nameless victims,” he continued.  Their messages were transmitted through the music and poetry of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora, in the stories and scholarship of writers and “in the work of young people who studied the past to create a better future”.

The United Nations Charter opposed racism and upheld equality, he said, adding that the Organization operated in many countries that sill bore the scars of the transatlantic slave trade, noting also that its Headquarters was a short distance from the African Burial Ground, where 419 people were buried.  Recalling the words of the poet Aimé Césaire, who warned against adopting the “attitude of a spectator”, the Secretary-General called on people to “address the lingering consequences” of slavery and to “fight for equality, justice and peace”.

Opening the meeting earlier on behalf of the General Assembly President, Ken Kanda (Ghana) said the International Day focused the world’s attention on the unprecedented horror of the slave trade, providing all with an opportunity collectively and solemnly to reflect on the seemingly limitless scope of man’s inhumanity to man.  It was almost unimaginable that an estimated 15 million people had been forcibly removed from Africa in the four centuries between 1500 and 1900, he said.  “The suffering of every man, woman and child will forever rest on the conscience of humanity.”

He went on to emphasize that the profound social and economic inequality, hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice that many people of African descent continued to endure around the world today was a distressing and stubborn legacy of that heinous trade.  The theme of this year’s remembrance, “Forever Free:  Celebrating Emancipation”, paid tribute to those courageous men and women of all colours who had worked tirelessly to focus public opinion on the fact that the slave trade was a depraved and immoral corruption of the human spirit.  Much was owed to the determination and steadfast conviction of all those who had campaigned for its abolition, he said.

Calling on the Assembly to acknowledge that the horror of slavery persisted in the twenty-first century, he said forced labour and child labour, trafficking of persons, recruitment of child soldiers, and the sexual exploitation of women were all contemporary forms of slavery.  They were frequently clandestine, so it was difficult to gauge where and how they were committed, and to take appropriate action to punish the perpetrators.  Since the majority of sufferers belonged to the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized social groups, fear and the need to survive explained why victims rarely spoke out, he said.  The General Assembly, “this great pantheon of hope for humanity”, should play an active role in ensuring that slavery was ultimately eradicated once and for all.

Delivering the keynote address was Ali Mazrui, Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University, State University of New York.  Discussing the historical context of slavery’s abolition, he described how the Emancipation Proclamation had begun the process of freeing slaves in the United States.  Emancipation had helped to preserve the Union and had been the heaviest blow dealt to the rebellion during the American Civil War.  Emancipation had made the conflict multiracial, involving large numbers of African American soldiers, who joined the Union side.  Significantly, the Civil War had witnessed “the agency of the oppressed”, with black soldiers fighting to help win their own freedom.  In other abolition movements, white activists had worked to free black slaves, he pointed out.

That was true of the British story, he continued, detailing the efforts of William Wilberforce on the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.  Britain had already abolished the trade in slaves between Africa and the West Indies in 1807, while France had remained torn between the principles of its revolution and its expansionist imperial ambitions, he said.  Haiti had made history in its revolt against French colonial rule, he added, describing the impact of events there as “epoch-making”.

Mr. Mazrui went on to say that Haiti’s revolt against France had helped to encourage Britain to outlaw the trade in slaves, motivated in part by the desire to weaken France internationally.  France had responded to the revolt in Haiti by refocusing its expansionist ambitions on Europe, selling Louisiana to the United States in 1803.  The revolt in Haiti had also helped to fuel several other slave uprisings, with more than 20 countries in the Caribbean flaring up between 1789 and 1832, including large-scale rebellions in Barbados and Jamaica.

Emphasizing the importance of learning about the past in order to influence the present, he said the “torch of emancipation” had passed from Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama, as the first black President of the United States.  Its legacy was also seen in the appointment of a Pope from Latin America, in the uprisings of the Arab Spring and in the growth on the world diplomatic stage of China, India and Brazil.  It could be seen elsewhere, too, in the green movement, in the women’s movement and in the work of the United Nations itself — promoting peace and social justice.

Ahmad Allah-Mi ( Chad), speaking on behalf of the African Group, said the international community was honouring and remembering those who had suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system, and to raise awareness about the dangers and salient prejudices of racism.  The events taking place across the United States to honour 150 years of the Emancipation Proclamation provided a chance for the American community to engage in dialogue about the emancipation that was yet to be realized by too many in society, he said.  Marking the anniversary was a way to encourage a conversation about all the work that remained to be done in creating full equality and liberty.

For Africans and people of African descent, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were crimes against humanity, he continued.  They represented a painful legacy of abuse, discrimination and exploitation.  Slavery remained one of the most horrific and brutal chapters in human history, and the transatlantic slave trade must never be repeated or forgotten.  Much more remained to be done, not only to ensure that the slave trade was not repeated, but also to ensure that its modern equivalents, in the form of human trafficking and sex slavery, did not take root.  The African Group, therefore, appealed for implementation of the United Nations Global Plan of Action on Trafficking in Persons and the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, its review and its tenth anniversary.

Dessima M. Williams (Grenada), speaking on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, said that survivors of the “infamous horror” known as the Middle Passage had landed in ports throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, entering into an existence of forced labour and systemic cruelty that had lasted for generations, she said.  “Entire economies in much of what is now known as the ‘developed world’ were literally built on the backs of this involuntary African labour, in large measure.”

She said the struggle for full and absolute emancipation remained a continuing endeavour, and reparation was necessary in order fully to heal humanity from the brutality of the period when chattel slavery was forced and perpetuated.  Part of the emancipation had been achieved first in Haiti in 1804, she recalled.  That had set in motion the movement for freedom from bondage in other parts of the Caribbean and the wider Latin American region, as well as North America and Europe.  That, in turn, had ushered in an era of colonialism, which had merely perpetuated a refined form of what had formerly prevailed.  The anti-colonial struggle had been born in earnest as a logical outgrowth of the emancipation struggle, and had served as a constant reminder that full emancipation had not ended with the abolition of slavery.

A number Latin American and Caribbean States had taken a number of national initiatives to disseminate information on the slave trade and its gruesome historical legacy, she continued, highlighting the efforts of El Salvador to integrate the issue of slavery into the social studies curriculum of its education system.  Jamaica promoted awareness through various artistic, literary and scholarly programmes.  Expressing support for the development of the Permanent Memorial to the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, she said that, although today was an occasion to celebrate the end of slavery, it was also one to deepen the resolve to tackle the contemporary challenges of inequality, poverty and colonialism, and to abandon the idea that one race could ever be inferior to another.

Yousef Sultan Laram ( Qatar), speaking on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Group, said the Day was an important opportunity to educate and remind the international community “and more importantly, our youth, about the importance” of the Day.  He underlined the importance of honouring those who had demonstrated great courage and moral conviction in fighting for justice.  Noting that about 2.5 million people were subjected to contemporary forms of slavery, he said reflecting on the injustices of the past should prompt a redoubling of efforts “to protect the rights and dignity of all persons”, and to dedicate greater commitment to the elimination of “today’s slave-like practices”, including human trafficking, intolerance, racial discrimination and forced labour.

Several speakers referred to national and international efforts — as well as progress made — in combating lingering racism and racial discrimination.

Rosemary DiCarlo ( United States) described slavery as “one of the most painful chapters in my country’s history.”  The “repugnant practice” had been ended by the Emancipation Proclamation and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  It had taken a long time for the rights legally granted to enslaved people to be truly fulfilled, she said, paying tribute to the civil rights movement which had worked to move beyond the legacy of slavery.  However, the work was far from complete, as human trafficking and other contemporary forms of slavery persisted.  Tackling the problem meant bringing traffickers to justice, but also empowering people to ensure that they did not fall victim, she stressed.

Jarmo Viinanen ( Finland), speaking for the Group of Western European and Other States, said the “untold suffering” of victims of the transatlantic slave trade stood out as an “epic injustice”.  Calling for greater efforts to combat other forms of intolerance, he stressed the importance of human rights education and ending impunity.

Also included in the commemoration was a performance by the National Ballet of Cameroon.

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

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