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While the abominable buying and selling of human beings had been abolished some 200 years ago, the nefarious impacts of that practice were still present in everyday realities, speakers stressed today as the General Assembly marked the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Delegates also adopted a decision, introduced by Henry Alfredo Suárez Moreno (Venezuela) on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, to postpone the one-day organizational meeting of the United Nations high-level international conference on nuclear disarmament from 28 March 2018 to 10 May 2018.
In opening remarks, Secretary-General António Guterres recalled that the slave trade constituted the largest forced movement of people in history. “It was inhuman. It was shameful,” he said. “Yet, it was legally sanctioned — conducted and condoned by leaders and countries in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere.”
That tragic mass human suffering must be recounted to younger generations, he said, through education that offered an accurate reflection of historical accounts, including the many acts of bravery and resistance carried out by slaves.
He said it was equally important to highlight the enormous contributions of people of African descent across the world — seen in every area of human endeavour and every realm of human experience: from the sciences to the arts; from academia to sports, to politics, law, civil rights and international affairs. Today’s observance was established to both acknowledge a dreadful chapter in human history and shine a light on the dangers of racism and prejudice today.
“I am the living testimony of the resiliency of a black African woman who chose not to surrender, but to ensure the best possible options for her young grandchild,” said Graciela Dixon, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Panama, delivering a keynote address.
She recalled that, as she had learned about the trauma suffered by hundreds of millions of men and women dragged from their homelands and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to be delivered as merchandise under the merciless domain of ruthless people, she had rediscovered her own existence. Despite living in a small town in her native Panama, around the age of 16 she had become infused by the spirt of the civil rights movement in the United States, and attracted to that struggle, as had many others of that generation.
Thanks to the actions of many men and women, the Assembly gathered today to mark the collective determination to never again in human history repeat the horrendous crime of slavery, she said. All people had the right to enjoy and live in a free world where the full and final eradication of racism and discrimination in every form would no longer be a wishful thought. “We have this right just because we are humans,” she declared.
Assembly Vice-President Amrith Rohan Perera (Sri Lanka) called slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade “a stain on the fabric of human history”. Pointing to images of shackled men being sold in an open market a few months ago along the coast of Libya, he warned that divisive and dehumanizing rhetoric were on the rise, while minorities and other vulnerable people were being targeted as the cause of problems. Warning signs must be heeded and preventive action taken so past mistakes were not repeated, he said.
“We can’t change this painful part of our history, but we can learn from it,” said Nikki Haley (United States). It was not until the 1960’s that the descendants of slaves had been granted equality under the law in the United States, although their struggles continued. As the former Governor of South Carolina, she had witnessed first-hand the challenges faced by people of African descent. Although Americans were proud, they had not forgotten the long and difficult road many had travelled to reach this point.
Speaking on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean Member States, Elbio Oscar Rosselli Frieri (Uruguay) said the Transatlantic slave trade marked one of the worst violations of human rights in history. Its lingering effects had left an indelible impact on societies in Latin American and the Caribbean. The region was determined to achieve a society where all people were equal, and where people’s prospects and achievements were not marked by the colour of their skin or ethnic background.
Mamadou Tangara (Gambia), speaking on behalf of the African Group, said it was evident that the African continent was the birthplace of humanity and the cradle of civilization. The founding fathers of Africa had blazed the way to political freedom and equality across the continent.
At the same time, the Transatlantic slave trade had resulted in Africans being treated as lesser beings, said Anatolio Ndong Mba (Equatorial Guinea), aligning himself with the African Group. The slave trade was at the heart of structural inequalities, he said, many of which continued to affect people around the world.
That sentiment was shared by Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee (Ghana), who underlined that the remnants of the slave trade in her country were visible today. She pointed out that more than 40 million people worldwide were trapped in modern-day slavery in the form of forced labour, forced prostitution, human trafficking, child labour and forced marriage. Yet, while the Transatlantic slave trade had created devastating consequences in Africa, the resilience and survival of its victims had inspired change, especially for Africa’s decolonization and the Pan-Africanist movement, she said.
Noa Furman (Israel), on behalf of the Western European and Other States Group, shared that view, stressing that despite the abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade, millions worldwide still fell victim to slavery or similar practices.
Anayansi Rodriguez Camejo (Cuba), associating herself with the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries, said slavery was a particularly sensitive issue for the Cuban people. The beneficiaries of colonization, slavery and the slave trade must assume their responsibilities and provide compensation for the horrendous crimes committed.
Data had shown that poverty, social exclusion and violence affected people of African descent at disproportionately high levels, said Ricardo de Souza Monteiro (Brazil). With the world’s largest population of African descendants, Brazil was aware of its responsibility to redress injustices.
Indeed, there was a collective responsibility to educate future generations about the causes, consequences, lessons and legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade, said Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani (Qatar), on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Group. He emphasized the importance of developing and implementing related educational programmes.
Valentin Rybakov (Belarus), speaking on behalf of the Group of Eastern European States, advocated more academic research into the long-term consequences of the Transatlantic slave trade on affected communities, as well as greater awareness of the drivers of slavery.
The General Assembly will reconvene at a time and date to be announced.