New York

26 March 2018

Secretary-General's remarks for the international day of remembrance of the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade [as delivered]

 
I am pleased to join you today to remember and commemorate the victims and survivors of the transatlantic slave trade. 
 
Lasting for over 400 years, the abominable buying and selling of human beings was the largest forced movement of people in history. 
 
It was inhumane.  It was shameful. 
 
And yet it was legally sanctioned – conducted and condoned by leaders and countries in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. 
Eleven years ago, the General Assembly established the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to acknowledge the horrific trafficking in human lives. 
 
On this Day we must also recognize the role played by many of our countries, including my own, Portugal, in robbing millions of people of their homes, families, dignity and lives and profiting from their misery. 
 
But this observance was established not only to acknowledge a dreadful chapter in human history, but also to shine a spotlight on the dangers of racism and prejudice today. 
 
Although the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in the 1800s, it continues to affect social, cultural and political interaction among people and countries. 
 
This tragic mass human suffering must be recounted to younger generations through education that offers an accurate reflection of historical accounts, including the many acts of bravery and resistance carried out by slaves. 
 
The UN’s Remember Slavery Programme and UNESCO’s Slave Route Project are among the initiatives that, through education and outreach, contribute to more inclusive societies. 
 
It is equally important to highlight the enormous contributions of people of African descent across the world. 
 
We see those contributions everywhere, in every area of human endeavour, in every realm of human experience.  From the sciences to the arts, from academia to sports, to politics, law, civil rights and international affairs. 
One descendant of slaves made history at the United Nations itself: Ralph Bunche, the first
African-American to win a Nobel Prize.  One of the most respected and celebrated international civil servants in the history of our Organization, he once said “hearts are the strongest when they beat in response to noble ideals”. Our work today builds on his achievements. 
 
The son of enslaved parents who had escaped to freedom, Lewis Howard Latimer is considered one of the greatest inventors of the United States, especially for his improvement of carbon filaments in light bulbs. 
 
Born in Saint Lucia, Sir William Arthur Lewis became the first person of African descent to win the Nobel Prize for Economics. 
 
The contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr. to human and civil rights are of such global renown and eternal value that they need no description. 
 
I commend to you all an exhibition currently on display in our visitor’s lobby, which highlights the work of contemporary architects of African descent in different parts of the world.  One of featured individuals is Elizabeth Kennedy, a descendant of slaves from Jamaica, who founded her own firm of landscape architects.  Graciela Dixon is the first woman of African Descent to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Panama and whom we are delighted to host here today. 
 
The efforts of these and other people give life to the theme of this year’s observance, “Triumphs and Struggles for Freedom and Equality”, which is inspired by the efforts of survivors and their descendants to establish better lives for themselves and more just societies for all. 
 
It was precisely to ensure freedom and equality for all that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago. 
 
Article 4 of the Declaration is emphatic: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”. 
 
Yet today we see modern manifestations of servitude and bondage, with millions of children among the victims. 
 
We know as well the depth of the gaps that exist in the realization of the rights of people of African descent, and the intensity of the racism and hatred they encounter daily. 
 
In this, the International Decade of People of African Descent, we must recognize the work that is still to be done.   And on this International Day of Remembrance, let us pledge to remain forever vigilant and to use this opportunity to lift all lives and fight against forced labour and other horrendous abuses that have no place in our world. 
 
Today we honour the memory of victims and survivors of the transatlantic slave trade by continuing our common struggle to ensure that all people live in dignity and justice.  I thank you for commemorating this day and for raising your voices for this noble cause.