UN marks Day of Remembrance with calls to tackle slavery’s lingering consequences
With calls to remember the abuses of the past and intensify efforts to end those of the present, United Nations officials are marking the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade by urging the international community to work towards a future in which no form of human slavery exists.
“By recalling the causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade, we recommit to educating current and future generations of the dangers of racism and prejudice,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message on the Day, which this year is on the theme, “Victory over Slavery: Haiti and Beyond.”
On March 25 every year since 2007, the UN marks the International Day to honour the more than 15 million men, women, and children who suffered and died during the more than 400-year transatlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in history.
While paying tribute to the fight against slavery in nations around the world, this year’s commemoration also marks 210 years since Haiti was founded on 1 January 1804; the first Republic established as a result of the victorious struggle of enslaved people – led by Toussaint L’Ouverture – for their freedom and independence.
In addition, 2014 also marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Slave Route Project, launched in Benin in 1994, with the goal of breaking the silence surrounding the slave trade and its consequences.
Delivering the keynote address at the UN General Assembly’s annual commemorative meeting, Michaëlle Jean, UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti, said: “We are here because we believe in our duty to remember; we know how important it is to draw lessons from the past to build a better future.”
Remembering can be difficult, particularly when the subject is so horrific, but it is vital nevertheless to pay tribute to the innumerable victims of the Transatlantic slave trade, she said, also hailing the memory of those who rose up against 400 years of history and those enlightened thinkers who championed the inalienable rights of all human beings.
Starting 2014, worldwide activities are being organized throughout the year. At UN Headquarters in New York, work is currently under way on a Permanent Memorial to the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Designed by Rodney Leon, an American architect of Haitian descent, The Ark of Return, was selected last August as the winning design through an international competition.
“I hope the Memorial will also be a source of inspiration in the continuing fight against the many forms of slavery that still exist today,” Mr. Ban said in a statement delivered to the Assembly by his Chef de Cabinet, Susana Malcorra, adding that the memorial will promote greater recognition of the contributions that slaves and their descendants have made in their societies.
In his remarks, General Assembly President John Ashe said that while reflecting on the past, it is important to acknowledge the cruelties that continue to exist today. “Foremost, slavery still stalks our planet in many forms and manifestations,” he said.
Indeed, too many innocent women and young girls are held in bondage and are denied their freedom and right to live in dignity due to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Too many children are held in servitude and are victims of child labour, he continued.
“Combating such abuses is a daunting challenge. We must turn our commitments into concrete action so that women and the young can live without fear and want,” Mr. Ashe said.
The UN International Labour Organization (ILO), which reports that about 21 million people are victims of modern-day slavery, marked the occasion today by hosting a Google+ Hangout with the descendants of Solomon Northup, whose life and memoir inspired the Oscar-winning film 12 Years A Slave.
Two of Northup's descendants – Irene Northup-Zahos, a 72-year-old retired nurse who is Northup’s great-great-granddaughter, and Melissa Howell, Northup’s 42-year-old great-great-great-granddaughter – are teaming up to talk about Northup’s legacy and the horrors of modern-day slavery: forced labor and human trafficking across the world.