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1 Apr, 2016

UN General Assembly Stresses Vital Importance of Remembering How Enslaved Africans Shaped Modern World

29 March 2016, (UN News) – Most people, including those of African descent, would prefer not to remember slavery due to feelings of pain or guilt, yet it was vitally important to underscore the many ways in which enslaved Africans and their descendants had ultimately shaped the modern world, the General Assembly heard today as it marked the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Delivering the keynote address at the annual observance, Sheila S. Walker, Executive Director of Afrodisapora Inc., said current research made it possible — and obligatory — to tell that story in new and different ways that underscored the foundational role of enslaved Africans in creating the modern world.

For the first 300 years of the 500-year history of the modern Americas, the overwhelming majority of the population had been of African origin, she explained.

Between 1650 and 1850, they had produced 75 per cent of the commodities traded in the Atlantic world, fuelling the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, many Africans had been enslaved for their skill and knowledge in such areas as mining and rice cultivation — a transfer of technology from Africa to the Americas, she noted.

Today, approximately 200 million people of African descent lived in the Americas, from Chile to Canada, she said.

Outside the Americas, descendants of Africans enslaved in the era of the Ottoman Empire had affirmed their identity as Afro-Turks, while in India, some Africans had gone on to become traders, elites and even rulers. Describing a conversation with high school students in Brooklyn, she said that after watching a documentary titled Slave Routes: A Global Vision, they had asked why they had not been told the whole story about African people.

They had described their textbooks as excessively focused on tragedies, atrocities and victimization.

She emphasized that, while it was necessary to teach the horrors of the slave trade and slavery, educational materials must highlight the accomplishments and contributions of people of African descent.

Those Brooklyn students and their peers wished to be taught a more complete, truthful and empowering story that would give them a sense of global citizenship, make them feel good about themselves and their heritage, and inspire the esteem of others. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said that each year, the International Day provided an opportunity to remember and reflect upon one of the most appalling injustices in human history.

On that Day, the international community honoured the memory of millions of Africans forcibly removed from their families, villages and homelands over hundreds of years.

That important Day also directed a spotlight on racism, sadly still prevailing in today’s societies.

It was seen in untold acts of violence, discrimination, bias and prejudice all over the world. He went on to describe forced labour, bonded labour, child labour, human trafficking and forced prostitution as serious violations of human rights rooted in a glaring lack of respect and regard for fellow human beings.

They were an affront to the United Nations Charter and its reaffirmation in “the dignity and worth of the human person”.

Calling upon all to reject and pursue the struggle against all forms of contemporary slavery, he stressed that “our battle cry must be a life of dignity for all and enough is enough”. In 2016, he continued, the international community celebrated the rich culture and heritage of the African diaspora, remembering their roots, traditions and impact on the lives of societies involved in the slave trade.

Africans had brought to the New World the great diversity of their homeland cultures, he said, adding that Africa’s legacy of bold art, vibrant music and inspiring literature infused modern culture all over the world.

Furthermore, the trials and triumphs of the African diaspora also reminded all of the enduring qualities of human character, including fortitude, courage, strength, tolerance, resilience, passion and compassion. Calling attention to the launch of the International Decade of People of African Descent, he noted that much of today’s discrimination and marginalization could be traced to the slave trade.

That was why the United Nations Remember Slavery Programme was reaching out to young and old alike to create awareness, promote understanding and change attitudes.

He then urged all Member States, and civil society, to commit to ensuring that all people of African descent enjoyed equal access to education, employment, health care, development and other vital opportunities.

The time was long overdue for the international community to break the chains that had denied equality and the protection of human rights — under the law and in practice — to so many. Mogens Lykketoft (Denmark), President of the General Assembly, said today was an opportunity not only to pay homage to the sacrifices and contributions of enslaved Africans and their descendants, but also to confront modern slavery in its many forms and manifestations.

Too many innocent people, including women and children, suffered as a result of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, he said.

Many children found themselves trapped in forced labour instead of going to school.

Institutional racism, gender discrimination, social and economic inequality, hatred and prejudice all reflected the challenges of modern slavery and discrimination, he noted. He recalled the tireless efforts that had led to the 2015 unveiling of The Ark of Return, a permanent memorial at Headquarters to victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

It played a crucial role in educating current and future generations about the causes, consequences and lessons of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, he said, calling upon all Member States and people everywhere to do their part in fighting for a world free of modern slavery, discrimination, oppression and racism. Delegates then took the floor to emphasize the unique legacy of the transatlantic slave trade in virtually all corners of the world. Richard Nduhuura (Uganda), speaking for the Group of African States, said that wherever people of African descent had gone in captivity and slavery, they had emerged victorious and contributed tremendously to the economy, art, culture, music and heritage of the home-grown populations.

The diaspora culture was a mosaic reflected all over the world.

In fact, the Gullah, Maroon and Nova Scotia were people taken from the shores of Africa to the Americas, who had fought and obtained their freedom.

A significant example was the Amistadcase that had unified and advanced the abolitionist movement in the United States, he pointed out. Sylvie Lucas (Luxembourg), speaking for the Group of Western European and Other States, said that although slavery had existed in different periods of history and in different civilizations, the transatlantic slave trade remained unique in modern history because of its magnitude.

It was unfortunate that racism and discrimination based on belief, race and colour persisted, and that thousands of people fell victims to modern forms of slavery and human trafficking each year, she said.

The Ark of Return, unveiled in 2015, was a testament to the international community’s unity in the belief that the injustice of the slave trade must not be forgotten. Walton Alfonso Webson (Antigua and Barbuda), speaking for the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, said the transatlantic slave trade marked one of the worst human rights violations in history, noting that over 15 million African men, women and children had been its victims for more than 400 years.

The largest forced migration from 1501 to 1830 had taken place through the transatlantic slave trade, he said, pointing out that the gains made by the developed countries had been built upon involuntary African labour.

Turning to the modern day, he said the persistence of economic and social inequality, as well as slavery-like social orders in parts of the wold, must be brought to a halt.

Undoubtedly, the realization of complete emancipation remained unfinished on the agenda of the United Nations, he said, voicing full commitment to the role of the Special Committee on Decolonization. Husniyya Mammadova (Azerbaijan), speaking for the Group of Eastern European States, said the International Day was an opportunity to remember slavery in its contemporary forms.

Emphasizing the essential role of education and awareness-raising, she said the International Decade for People of African Descent had made it possible to showcase the valuable contributions made by victims of slavery and their descendants.

“Today was both a day of celebration as well as a moment to deepen resolve to combat modern forms of slavery,” she noted. Muhammad Anshor (Indonesia), speaking for the Group of Asia-Pacific States, said the Permanent Memorial provided the current and future generations with an understanding of the history and consequences of slavery.

It also represented a tool for raising awareness of the current dangers of racism and prejudice.

Fighting racism and racial discrimination meant fighting poverty at the same time, he said, emphasizing that a stronger legal framework for improving policies and practices in dealing with discrimination on any grounds would be the ideal solution. Cassandra Butts (United States), representing the host country, said many of the descendants of African slaves had made, and continued to make, her country a stronger and better nation.

On such a day of reflection, however, it would be wrong not to recognize the trafficking of women, men and children.

The soon-to-opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture would be a visible reminder of the past and an inspiration for the future, she said. Martha Pobee (Ghana) stressed that mere remembrance without positive action did not amount to progress or renewal.

The commemoration of the slavery’s end should serve as a time for deep reflection and collective action to address false ideologies, he stressed. Ana Silvia Rodríguez Abascal (Cuba), emphasizing that those who had been exploited deserved compensation for the crimes committed against them, said her country supported the Caribbean Community’s request for compensation for the slave trade.

Cuba also rejected the selfishness and shameful opulence of the few beneficiaries of globalization, she added. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota (Brazil) described his county as home to the largest number of persons of African descent outside Africa, with a population of more than 100 million.

While they had influenced the emergence of contemporary Brazilian culture in many different ways, they remained disproportionately affected by extreme poverty, unemployment and violence, as well as a lack of quality education and health care. Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) said that his country’s national legislation condemned and forbade forced labour, genocide, racial segregation and apartheid as well as all other forms of racial discrimination.

Kazakhstan would continue to support all efforts for the benefit of dialogue among civilizations, and combat all forms of slavery, racism and related intolerance, he stressed.