24 March 2017

World Yet to Overcome Racism as Slavery’s Legacy ‘Resounds Down the Ages’, Secretary-General Tells Tribute Event for Victims of Transatlantic Trade

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the General Assembly commemorative meeting for the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in New York today:

It is an honour to join you in commemorating the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

We must never forget this dark chapter of human history.  And we must always remember the role played by many of our countries — including my own country of Portugal — in carrying out the largest forced migration in history and in robbing so many millions of people of their dignity, and often also of their lives.

The legacy of slavery resounds down the ages.  The world has yet to overcome racism.  Many countries still suffer from economic patterns and decisions set in motion long ago.  Many families still feel keenly the trauma imposed on their forebears.  We must continue to recognize the persistent pain of this legacy, even in the present moment.  Moreover, we know that, while some forms of slavery may have been abolished, others have emerged to blight our world, including human trafficking and forced and bonded labour.  Heeding the lessons of yesterday means fighting these ills today.

The theme for this year’s International Day, “recognizing the legacy and contributions of people of African descent”, invites us to pay tribute to the many achievements of the African diaspora.  We see those contributions in every field of human endeavour.  The descendants of slaves have made their mark as inventors, economists and jurists; as authors and scholars; as artists and athletes; as politicians and civil rights leaders.

Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman to enter outer space.  She is among the distinguished individuals of African descent who are being honoured in an exhibition currently on display in our Visitors Lobby.  One descendant of slaves made an imprint on the United Nations itself — Ralph Bunche, the first African-American to win a Nobel Prize and one of the most respected and celebrated international civil servants in the history of this Organization.

It seems especially appropriate at this commemorative meeting to recall the life and work of Derek Walcott, the poet and Nobel laureate from Saint Lucia who died one week ago today.  In poems and other writings, he confronted the brutality of slavery and the legacy of colonialism.  In The Sea Is History, for example, he gave us the searing image of “men with eyes as heavy as anchors/who sank without tombs”.

The United Nations and I personally attach the greatest importance to the challenge of slavery, past and present.  Through our Remember Slavery Programme, we will continue shedding light on tragedies related to slavery and highlighting the impressive and living contributions that people of African descent are making to their communities and to our world.  These are two crucial ways through which we can combat racism.

At this time of rising divisiveness, let us unite against hatred.  And let us build a world of freedom and dignity for all.

For information media. Not an official record.