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

Opening Statement by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 16 March 2017

Colleagues and Friends,

Today, we honour the memory of the millions of victims of slavery. In particular, the Transatlantic slave trade, over the course of more than four centuries, abducted more than 15 million people from their homes across Africa and transported them by force to the Americas, where they were bought and sold, exploited and frequently killed. 

We commemorate the suffering of those countless millions of men, women and children. We celebrate the heroes who opposed, and triumphed over, this massive crime against humanity. And we renew our pledge to ensure that no human being is treated as a commodity.  

This commemorative day also presents the opportunity to examine the scars created by slavery on our contemporary world. Among these dark shadows cast across our societies are profound and unjust inequalities, and pervasive racial prejudice and discrimination.

This was the largest forced deportation in history; the most extensive ever trade in human beings; the longest perpetration of a crime against humanity. Slavery and the slave trade stand among the most appalling violations ever inflicted on human beings – not only because of their cruelty, but also their magnitude, their organized nature and especially their negation of the humanity of the victims. Many families, cities and industries drew economic benefit from the enslavement of Africans. But the continuing legacy of slavery – its benefits for some; its horrific injury to many – has for generations been deliberately ignored. This refusal to recognise the living legacy of the slave trade drives wedges through our modern world. 

In every region, many communities of African descent do not have equal rights to education, housing and employment. Even systems for law-enforcement and justice – the very systems that should ensure fairness and protect all individuals – are often skewed against people of African descent, with unequal treatment before the law; alarming rates of police violence; disproportionate recourse to detention; and harsher sentences. Bigotry prevents them from equal access to education, housing and employment. They are often among the poorest communities, with low levels of political participation.

Despite emancipation; despite the massive gains made in many heroic struggles for civil rights and independence, an intolerable number of people of African descent continue to be burdened by underdevelopment. And among the root causes of this comprehensive injustice are denial and silence about slavery’s legacy.

The International Decade for People of African Descent, which will run until 2024, aims to honour and restore the dignity of people of African descent by raising awareness and sparking real change. Its theme is “Recognition, Justice, Development.” Recognition, because change begins with clarity. We need to clearly grasp the magnitude of discrimination, and also acknowledge and celebrate the manifold contributions made by people of African descent to the societies in which they live. Justice, because the harm done must be repaired. And development, because people of African descent have a right to advance their lives and fully participate in decision-making at all levels of society.  

The Decade seeks to encourage States to implement policies that will reduce the historically inherited social injustices which people of African descent still endure. Policies which will fight racism with education, and promote cultural diversity. This is a real opportunity for States to alleviate the harm and suffering faced by people of African descent – by developing better laws and policies, by nourishing much greater awareness of both the material and immaterial heritage of slavery and the slave trade, and by finding appropriate solutions for reparatory justice.

Last year, my Office and UNESCO published a ten-year diary which aims to accompany the Decade by recalling key dates, issues and leading figures in the story of the African diaspora. Surging out of these disparate pages, we read the vast collective quest for respect and freedom; stories of individual resilience and strength; and an almost endless cascade of ingenuity, creativity and achievement, against all odds. Economically, culturally and politically, people of African descent have helped transform entire nations – not only in the Americas, but also in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and beyond. It is time those contributions be recognised.   

All of us benefit today from the immense cultural, economic, social and political heritage brought by people of African descent. Slavery and the transatlantic slave trade tore families and communities apart; perhaps today, by highlighting the tremendous contributions they have made and the irreversible connections created between peoples, the memory of the crime can, in a reverse move, bring nations together. What it shows us is that part of the history and identity of every society is written beyond the seas; that our realities are intertwined and our destinies, inseparable.

In 1963, the great author and civil rights activist James Baldwin broke down the meaning of equality to its simplest, most profound expression: “No label, no slogan, no party, no skin colour is more important than the human being.” In that defining year for the US civil rights movement, hundreds of thousands marched to end segregation for ever, and Martin Luther King told the world, “I have a dream”. As Baldwin wrote, "That day, for a moment it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance. Perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not for ever remain that dream one dreamed in agony."

We are one humanity. And as we acknowledge our joined inheritance, our legacies and scars, we must help each other towards equality, well-being and peace.

I thank you