Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
20 March 2019
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Over the course of more than four centuries, more than 15 million people were abducted from their homes across Africa and transported by force to the Americas. Those who survived were stripped of their dignity and denied all human rights. They and their children were bought and sold. As affirmed at the World conference against racism and racial discrimination in Durban, South Africa in 2001 “slavery and slave trade are crimes against humanity and should always have been so”.
Its legacy still scars societies across the world. The burden of those four hundred years continues to impoverish, humiliate, oppress and exclude many people of African descent. African societies were robbed of their young people, and weakened, becoming vulnerable to additional forms of exploitation, such as colonialism.
Every year we gather to pay tribute to those suffered and died. We celebrate the great courage and resilience of their struggle. The theme of this year’s commemoration -- "The Power of the Arts for Justice" – is a reminder of the magnificent and unstoppable energy, manifested in music, painting, quilting and embroidery and in cooking, literature and dance.
The struggle for emancipation and rights could not be silenced. Millions of enslaved people -- generation after generation -- raised their voices, expressed their reality, demanded recognition, and justice, and manifested their humanity, their equality, their individuality and their rights. They used songs to express their values and their solidarity with one another; they cried out for deliverance, and hid coded messages in the lyrics they chanted in rhythm with their manual work.
Their long and honorable struggle for freedom and equality continues to offer us its lessons today. We shall overcome. Let my people go.
We are privileged to learn from the legacy of the slaves who fought for freedom, and their descendants, and from the many others, who continue to struggle for justice. If we stand together, the force of solidarity and principle will ultimately triumph over the forces of oppression and hate. No matter how powerful the oppressor, we know that justice is with those who demand equality, dignity, and human rights. And so, in bearing witness to the suffering endured by so many millions of people in the course of this devastating criminal enterprise, we also honor and celebrate the example they have given us.