20 October 2016
Seventy-first Session, 31st Meeting (AM)

Memory of Transatlantic Slave Trade Victims Drives Moral Imperative to Combat Modern-day Slavery, Speakers Tell Annual Commemoration

Courage, Determination Must Inspire Today’s Efforts against Exploitation, Inequality, Says General Assembly President

The memory of the more than 15 million victims of the transatlantic slave trade provided a moral imperative to effectively combat racism, xenophobia, inequality and modern-day manifestations of slavery, speakers in the General Assembly said today as it held its annual commemoration of the largest forced migration in human history.

Peter Thomson (Fiji), President of the Assembly, declared:  “The scale of human suffering caused by the transatlantic slave trade is an affront to humanity’s conscience.”  The reprehensible practice had continued for more than 400 years, and more than 15 million men, women and children had been the victims of that inhumane and barbaric system.  Forced to work under deplorable conditions on plantations and in textile mills and factories, slaves had suffered while others built their fortunes upon their backs, he said.

Noting that modern forms of slavery - including human trafficking, forced labour and child labour — still plagued the world today, he emphasized the importance of providing employment and decent work for all, in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Stressing the need to overcome racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance whenever and wherever they were found, he said the struggle for freedom and equality had taken great courage, hope and determination, and those qualities must now inspire today’s efforts to combat inequality and exploitation.

The representative of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), recalled that the regional bloc had spearheaded the 2015 erection of the Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade at United Nations Headquarters, known as the “Ark of Return”.  Thanking Member States, organizations and individuals that had made contributions to the Trust Fund for the Memorial, he said the Ark of Return would encourage people of all races, colours, creeds as well as cultural and social standing to respect each other as one people.  Warning that “the progress we have made should not cause us to rest on our laurels”, he urged the international community to redouble its efforts to combat racism and racial discrimination, and to counter, with all its might, modern-day manifestations of slavery.

Cuba’s representative described the slave trade and the legacy of slavery as root causes of the profound social and economic inequalities, hatred and racism that continued to affect people of African descent today.  Recalling Fidel Castro’s belief that human exploitation imposed on the peoples of three continents had forever marked the destiny of more than 4.5 billion people, she underlined the need for full remedy and compensation for those horrific crimes.  In that regard, it would be fair to expect special and differentiated treatment for developing countries, particularly those in Africa, as they pursued their economic ambitions, she said.  Developed countries and their consumer societies were liable for the destruction of the environment, and had been the main beneficiaries of conquest and colonization, she noted.  Indeed, they continued to be enriched by an unfair economic order and international financial institutions created exclusively “by them and for them”.

India’s representative described the transatlantic slave trade as a manifestation of naked greed and the immoral pursuit of profit coupled with unbridled abuse of power exercised over the weak.  “The sheer scale of this crime against humanity is mind-boggling,” he added, recalling that the slave trade had destroyed lives and communities across generations and vast regions of Africa, South America and the Caribbean on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Entire communities still bore the scars of deep-rooted racial discrimination, oppression and chronic poverty, he said, underscoring the international community’s duty to remember the sacrifice made by slavery’s victims.

Liechtenstein’s representative expressed deep concern that the scourge of slavery persisted today, even as a universal prohibition served as one of the most powerful international legal standards.  An estimated 45 million people around the world – more than ever before – lived in conditions that qualified as modern slavery.  Enslavement and human trafficking were committed on a large scale and with widespread impunity, he said, adding that every single country was affected.  Noting that the 2030 Agenda’s adoption had generated a fresh and dynamic impetus to address modern-day slavery in all its forms, he said Liechtenstein was working to address the phenomenon’s “business side” by disrupting financial flows and using relevant data for criminal prosecution, among other means.  The country was also working to address the enormous impunity with action at the international level, he said.  Since national judiciaries had failed, there was a clear case for involving and making use of international justice, in particular the International Criminal Court because the Rome Statute had jurisdiction over enslavement as both a war crime and a crime against humanity.

Jamaica’s representative expressed gratitude to all those who had supported the erection of the Permanent Memorial, including the Secretary-General, the United Nations Office for Partnerships, civil society and private individuals.  Many Member States had also provided support for the initiative, which not only honoured victims but also served as a reminder of the legacies of slavery and the need for action to address them.  The Ark of Return had already attracted numerous visitors to the United Nations, he noted, expressing confidence that its beauty and universal message would endure and continue to impact all visitors.

The representative of the United States, recognizing slavery’s impact on her own country’s development, said it was critical to remember the contributions and wounds of the victims and to honour abolitionists.  Descendants of slaves continued to inspire the United States to confront injustices, she said, noting that the Smithsonian had recently opened a National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.  While the Museum’s clear-eyed view of history could make some uncomfortable, it was precisely that discomfort that allowed people to heal and grow, she emphasized.

Before the Assembly was the report of the Secretary-General “Permanent memorial to and remembrance of the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade:  status of the United Nations Trust for Partnerships – Permanent Memorial” (document A/71/170), outlining contributions received as of 30 June 2016.  According to the report, a total of $2.19 million had been recorded as income and interest on that date.

The General Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 October, to consider the necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba.

For information media. Not an official record.