In commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and honouring the bravery of those who opposed it, top United Nations officials today called for stepped-up efforts to end modern-day slavery, including human trafficking.
“We celebrate the fact that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said at a special meeting convened by the General Assembly in New York. “Yet around the world, millions of people are still deprived of their most fundamental human rights and freedoms.”
On 25 March 1807, the British Parliament banned the slave trade, often referred to as the first example of globalization, throughout its Empire, marking the end of trans-Atlantic trafficking in human beings. Finally in 1833, an act was passed emancipating British slaves.
Millions of those forcibly taken from Africa died en route, in what is known as the middle passage across the Atlantic, to their destinations, while many others perished due to terrible conditions at the other end.
“Two hundred years ago, courageous women and men around the world stood up for freedom,” Ms. Migiro said. “Today, we must do the same. We must act together to stop crimes that deprive countless victims of their liberty, dignity and human rights.”
Citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa said that fortunes were made on the backs of an estimated 13 million slaves during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Sheikha Haya also said that while African traders such as Antera Duke and tribal leaders were complicit in the slave trade, some of the continent’s rulers resisted, including King Alfonso of Kongo in the 16th century and Queen Njingha Mbando of Ndongo, or what is today Angola, in the 17th century.
“It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at this time,” she said in a statement read by acting Assembly President Boniface Chidyausiku of Zimbabwe.
“While reflecting on the past, we also need to acknowledge the unspeakable cruelty that persists today,” she said, calling for a redoubling of efforts to end such practices as bonded labour, forced recruitment of child soldiers and the illegal sex trade.
The UN Children’s Fund estimates that 1.2 million children are trafficked every year, and are used as domestic servants, factory workers, camel jockeys, soldiers and sex slaves. Children are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses and are also the least able to defend themselves.
Last November, in a resolution designating 25 March 2007 as the International Day to commemorate the 200th bicentennial of the end of the slave trade, the General Assembly said that the slave trade and its legacy are “at the heart of situations of profound social and economic inequality, hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice, which continue to affect people of African descent today.”
The resolution also voiced concern that it took the international community almost two centuries to acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are both crimes against humanity and should always have been considered as such.
Eleven speakers delivered statements at today’s Assembly meeting, which was opened by South African drummers and closed with a performance by the Independence Choir.
Representing the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Saint Kitts and Nevis’ Prime Minister Denzil Douglas said that all regions of the world are “inexorably linked by the appalling practice” of slavery, and he urged that the suffering of the slaves and sacrifices made by those who fought against the slave trade never be forgotten.
“We must remain steadfast in our efforts to fully eradicate the scourges that continue to plague our world,” Mr. Douglas said, urging that human rights violations, racism, human trafficking and underdevelopment be overturned.
South Africa’s Ambassador, Dumisani S. Kumalo, speaking on behalf of the African States, said the continent “is still nursing the wounds of slavery.” Even after the abolition of the slave trade which “robbed our continent of our best people,” Mr. Kumalo noted that colonialism and the “unequalled oppression driven by greed and expansionism” further impoverished the African people.
Aside from the Assembly’s special meeting, other events were held to commemorate the bicentennial at UN Headquarters in New York.
In a press briefing after the Assembly session, Rex Nettleford, professor and Vice-Chancellor Emeritus of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, told reporters that among the many injustices done to slaves was the denial of their “capacity to think.”
Mr. Nettleford, who also spoke at the Assembly meeting, also pointed out that while the slave trade was ended 200 years ago, the system of slavery and “all the obscenities indulged by slave masters” continued for several decades more in parts of the Caribbean and the United States.
Later in the afternoon, a panel discussion entitled “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: The Tragedy, the Legacy” was held, and participants included Ali Mazrui of the State University of New York; James Campbell, Chairman of the Slavery Committee at Brown University; and Lincoln Crawford, a member of the United Kingdom Deputy Prime Minister’s National Commission on Slavery.