As the United Nations honoured the memory of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed the hope today that the struggle against “one of the greatest atrocities in history” will inspire the world in the battle against modern forms of slavery such as forced labour and human trafficking.
“Even as we mourn the atrocities committed against the countless victims, we take heart from the courage of slaves who rose up to overcome the system which oppressed them,” Mr. Ban said at a special ceremony at UN Headquarters marking the first International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
“These brave individuals, and the abolitionist movements they inspired, should serve as an example to us all as we continue to battle the contemporary forms of slavery that stain our world today,” the Secretary-General told those gathered at the event, which included performances by African drummers, dancers and poets and a steel pan troupe from the Caribbean.
Mr. Ban noted that even today, millions around the world, including children, are suffering under the yoke of racism, forced labour, sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Not only is the world shamed by these horrible crimes but it is also challenged to respond, he said. “Let us honour the victims of the slave trade by remembering their struggle. Let us carry it forward until no person is deprived of liberty, dignity and human rights.”
In his message marking the Day of Remembrance, General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim noted that it provides an opportunity to acknowledge a “profoundly shameful” period in history and to remember the millions who suffered. “It also gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to the courage and moral conviction of all those who campaigned for abolition,” he added.
It was the Assembly that, in December 2007, adopted a resolution designating 25 March as an annual day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It also decided to erect a permanent memorial at the UN to acknowledge the tragedy and consider the legacy of slavery.
Echoing the Secretary-General, Mr. Kerim emphasized that, while coming to terms with past injustices, it is also important to recognise the “unspeakable cruelty” that persists today in the various modern forms of slavery such as bonded labour and slavery by descent, forced recruitment of child labour and child soldiers, human trafficking and the illegal sex trade.
“If we sincerely want to honour the suffering that slaves experienced and died under in the past, we must do much more to protect and promote the human rights, freedom and dignity of all people, in particularly, those who continue to suffer under modern forms of slavery,” the President stated.
To address the serious threat posed by human trafficking, Mr. Kerim said he intends to convene a special meeting of the Assembly on the issue on 3 June.
Among those participating at the commemoration was the artist and human rights activist Harry Belafonte, who stated that “slavery is still with us and it has been codified and it has been driven underground because the symbols that once identified slavery have long since gone.
“But although slavery still exists, it now comes under new codifications,” Mr. Belafonte said at a press briefing on the issue, citing practices such as child prostitution and recruitment of children for armed conflict, as well as the economic exploitation of millions of the world’s poor.
“There are all sorts of names for it. And people in their indifference, or in their participation in the process, has continued to cause great harm to the human family,” he added.
In addition to today’s ceremony, the UN is hosting a series of events to mark the Day of Remembrance, including an exhibit entitled “The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo” and a student videoconference on 28 March with students in Sierra Leone, Norway, St. Lucia, Canada, Cape Verde, United Kingdom and UN Headquarters in New York.