Slavery’s Consequences Continue Today, Assembly President Says, as Secretary-General Mentions Own Country’s Role in Largest Forced Migration
Nothing would be more noble than honouring victims of slavery — and recognizing the remarkable contributions of their descendants over the centuries — in the lands to which they were transported, the General Assembly heard today as it commemorated the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Delivering the keynote address at the annual observance, Lonnie Bunch, Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., said he was personally haunted by the fact that few countries made an effort to remember the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. “We should all be haunted,” he said, emphasizing the importance of understanding how slavery had shaped so many countries in profound ways.
The International Day of Remembrance ensured that the memory of slavery would never go away, he said, adding that it would help people to find understanding and knowledge. Speaking personally, he said he was in awe of his enslaved ancestors and the strength, hope and humanity that had enabled them to survive bondage. “We can honour all those sons and daughters of Africa — stolen, lost or forever changed by slavery — if we remove their lives from the margins and help the places they were forced to call home — North America, South America and the Caribbean — understand how much the tint, tone and culture, and their national identity was shaped by the slave trade,” he said.
In that regard, the International Day of Remembrance provided a mirror for remembering not only struggles and losses, but also great strength and noble ideas, he continued. It was a day for illuminating the dark corners of history and a reminder to give voice and visibility to millions of Africans otherwise lost to history, and to fight the good fight for racial and social justice. “The Day of Remembrance is a clarion call to remember”, he said, adding “nothing is more powerful than a people, than a nation, steeped in its history — and there is nothing more noble than honouring our ancestors and their struggles by remembering”.
Delivering his own remarks, Secretary-General António Guterres said the 2017 theme — “Recognizing the Legacy and Contributions of People of African Descent” — highlighted achievements of the African diaspora, pointing to the ground-breaking exploits of Mae Jemison in outer space travel and Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche. Emphasizing the importance of facing the challenge of slavery, past and present, he said the United Nations Remember Slavery Programme continued to shed light on tragedies and to highlight the impressive and living contributions that people of African descent were making to their communities and to the world. “At this time of rising divisiveness, let us unite against hatred and let us build a world of freedom and dignity for all,” he emphasized.
He went on to underline the importance of remembering the role played by countries including his own, Portugal, in carrying out the largest forced migration in history, and in robbing millions of people of their dignity and often their lives. The legacy of slavery had resounded down the ages and the world had yet to overcome racism, with many countries still suffering under economic patterns and decisions set in motion long ago. Some forms of slavery had been abolished, but others had emerged, he pointed out, citing human trafficking, as well as forced and bonded labour.
Peter Thomson (Fiji), President of the General Assembly, called for the protection of human rights and an end to racism, xenophobia and modern forms of slavery, including human trafficking, forced labour and child labour. The consequences of slavery had not ended with emancipation, but continued to this day, he emphasized. Some were negative, but others positive, he said, underscoring the contributions made by descendants of slavery to shaping multicultural societies.
During the commemoration, speakers described Haitian-American Rodney Léon’s The Ark of Return monument — unveiled at United Nations Headquarters in 2015 — as a constant reminder of the past and a source of inspiration in the ongoing fight against the different forms of slavery seen today, including human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Jose Luis Rocha (Cabo Verde), speaking for the African States, said that slavery amounted to 400 years of crimes against humanity, committed in the name of commerce and resisted by many who had fought to end the atrocity. While the transatlantic slave trade had laid the foundation for capitalism, generating immense wealth in Europe and the Americas, it was not just about numbers, he said, emphasizing that more than 18 million people had suffered during that time, and States must address today’s ongoing injustices. They must also recognize the advances in science, literature, music, culture, art, food and machinery, he said, noting that the world would be a very different place without the contributions made by people of African descent.
Reverting to his national capacity, he said the town of Ribeira Grande in Cabo Verde had played a role along the transatlantic slave trade route and its tragic consequences. However, it had also been the cradle of the first mixed-race Creole society, representing the meeting of African and European cultures. Creole culture had then spread to the Caribbean and the Americas, he said, adding that it represented an important yet intangible heritage shared by Africa, the Americas and Europe. As such, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had classified the town — renamed Cidade Velha — as a World Heritage Site in 2009, he said.
Jorge Skinner-Klee (Guatemala), speaking for the Latin American and Caribbean States, emphasized that the region had remained active in efforts to ensure that the pernicious and dire impacts of slavery were rectified. About 200 million people in the Americas identified themselves as being of African descent and many millions more lived outside the African continent, sometimes constituting the poorest and most marginalized groups of society. Slavery’s lingering effects continued to have an impact on the Latin America and Caribbean region, and its countries were determined to realize free and pluralistic societies in which all people could enjoy equal rights, he said.
Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob (Malaysia), speaking for the Asia-Pacific States, said it was a moral and shared responsibility and obligation to ensure that future generations did not fall victim to slavery. The Asia-Pacific States reiterated their full support for the creation of a stronger legal framework to improve policies and practices in the fight against modern slavery at the international, regional and national levels.
Vlad Lupan (Republic of Moldova), speaking for the Eastern European States, said modern-day slavery had entrapped about 20 million people. In remembering the achievements of people of African descent, the world must also address the mass movement of refugees and migrants so that they would not fall victim to modern-day slavery.
Jürgen Schulz (Germany), speaking for the Western European and other States, summed up a common view: “If we are to draw the right conclusions from the past, we must honour our international human rights obligations and redouble our efforts to eradicate the scourge of modern slavery and human trafficking in all their forms.” Recounting the story of the African diaspora and the enriching influences and accomplishments of people of African descent raised awareness of the harm caused by racism, discrimination and prejudice, exposing their moral bankruptcy.
Stefanie Amadeo (United States), representing the host country, said the International Day was an opportunity to both honour the slave trade’s victims and celebrate those who had fought for its abolition. Calling for greater action to confront modern forms of slavery, including sex trafficking and forced labour, she said it was her country’s hope that everyone would leave today’s meeting with a renewed commitment that no one should live in fear of the horrors of slavery.
Anatolio Ndong Mbae (Equatorial Guinea), associating himself with the African States, said today was an opportunity to remember a sad, dark chapter in history of which his country, and others in the subregion, had first-hand experience. Equatorial Guinea paid tribute to the “black pearls” who had succumbed to the yoke of slavery and to those who had fought against such an ignoble injustice. The Permanent Memorial was not only a symbol, but also a reminder to those who might wish to forget, he added.
Anayansi Rodríguez Camejo (Cuba), associating herself with the Latin American and Caribbean States, emphasized her country’s contribution to national identity and culture through the descendants of the 1.3 million slaves who had worked its plantations. Cubans were deeply proud of their African roots, she emphasized. It would be an unforgivable historical error to ignore the past, she said, recalling that much of today’s wealth was the product of the shame and disgrace of slavery, and the main beneficiaries should assume their responsibilities and ensure compensation for the horrendous crimes committed.
The General Assembly will reconvene at a date and time to be announced.