Introductory remarks at Commemoration of International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade


18 March 2016

18 March 2016

Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon. I wish to thank the African Union, the Members of the African Group and the World Against Racism Network for organizing this event, and for their kind invitation to me to address you here today. It is indeed an honour to participate in this important commemoration.

The transatlantic slave trade is a scourge on the conscience of humanity. For over 400 years, approximately 15 million individuals were forced to migrate and put into slavery, stripped of their freedom, dignity and human rights.

In December 2007, the General Assembly established 25 March as the annual International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. While recognizing the global lack of knowledge about the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences, the Member States agreed to raise more attention to this brutal history with the intention to reflect on and learn from it.

Under this framework, we come together today to pay tribute to all of the individuals who were victims of the horrific practice of enslaving and trading in persons, and to honour those who stood up and fought for freedom and respect.
Over the last 90 years, numerous international conventions concerning slavery, trafficking in persons, forced labour and other forms of slavery have been signed, beginning with the Slavery Convention in 1926 and including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits slavery and the slave trade in all of its forms.

The prohibition of slavery and the slave trade in international law rises to the level of jus cogens, placing full obligation on all States to protect their people from slavery and to eradicate slavery in all of its forms, without any possibility of derogation.

And just a few months ago, the Members of the General Assembly unanimously committed themselves to work to fully implement the 2030 Agenda, the goals of which include the eradication of forced labour and end modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour.

Despite all of the international efforts to address and prevent slavery, however, we must acknowledge that slavery continues to happen today. There are tens of millions of individuals trapped in slavery or slavery-like practices. The estimations range from 20 million to 30 million individuals, and some even say there are more. This includes an estimated 5.5 million children. And each year these numbers continue to grow. But the most important point here is that we speak of individual human beings, not numerical statistics. One individual trapped in slavery today, in the 21st century, is too many.

Modern day slavery takes on many different forms and spans across all races, religions, cultures and genders. While old, traditional forms of slavery continue to persist, new forms of slavery are being employed, adding to the exploitation and suffering of millions of men, women and children.

The Human Rights Council has made great effort to address modern day slavery. In 2007, the Council created the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate replaced the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, in order to better streamline procedures, improve follow-up to conclusions and recommendations and increase overall effectiveness. Through annual reports to the Council, the Special Rapporteur sheds light on contemporary forms of slavery and emphasizes the duty of States under international law to protect the right of their citizens to not be subjected to slavery. The reports also share strategies that have proven effective in identifying and ending contemporary forms of slavery and provide specific recommendations to States on actions and measures to be taken to eliminate slavery and slavery-like practices.

Additionally, the Council provides a important forum for civil society actors to advocate that the issues of trafficking of persons, forced labour, early marriage and other forms of slavery be incorporated into the Council’s and its Members States’ dialogues, debates and decisions.

Remembrance and commemoration are the first steps to prevent modern day slavery. We are here today to remember the victims of a horrific, inhumane practice that was still taking place just over 150 years ago. I wish to recall a very well-known phrase: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  As we lead up to the 25th of March, let us remember, and indeed learn from, our past mistakes so we do not continue to repeat them.

We must work to bring to the attention of the world that slavery is not just a horror of the past, but is indeed happening today. We must acknowledge, confront, address and eradicate modern day slavery. We must work hard to achieve accountability while restoring dignity to the victims and providing them with rehabilitation. The Human Rights Council is just one of many venues where we can join forces to make this happen. We must work together to stop slavery. This is the true way to honour the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

Thank you.