Statements and speechesOffice of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Remembering the victims of trans-Atlantic slavery
24 March 2023
Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
International Day for Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
Some tragedies in human history are so monstrous, and of such magnitude, that we resolve to commemorate the victims every year – to show them the respect that was denied to them in their lifetimes, and to ensure that this will never happen again.
Today we remember over 15 million African women, men and children who suffered the horror of enslavement and the trans-Atlantic slave trade over a period of 400 years.
We honour the resilience of those who endured and pay tribute to the memory of those who lost their lives, as well as those who struggled for freedom and their determination to uphold the dignity and equality of all human beings.
This year’s observance, which takes place as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reminds us that despite years of work, racism – the ideology and harm that underpinned the trans-Atlantic slave trade – is still with us.
Racism marks out some people for lower-quality services, fewer opportunities, and pervasive, corrosive contempt. Racism brings exclusion, discrimination, hatred and conflict. And those who endure this racism, even today, are often descendants of those who suffered enslavement in the past.
Last month I undertook a visit to Haiti, a small country that played an immense role in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. At one point Haiti represented one third of the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans. It was also the location of the first massive revolt by enslaved people, demanding their fundamental rights as human beings. Toussaint Louverture, who was born a captive – enslaved from birth – led thousands of men and women in revolution, and won independence for his people.
Haiti is poor today, and its people suffer deeply from inequalities, underdevelopment and gang violence. Many of these structural issues have roots in the exploitation and vicious harms perpetrated over generations during slavery.
But the people of Haiti are rich in culture, in ingenuity, in courage and in pride.
The history of slavery is a terrible reminder of inhuman suffering, injustice and loss. But it is also the story of a victorious struggle against oppression and for freedom – a quest to fulfil our universal human rights.
These rights are the founding principles of the United Nations, and they are the basis of sustainable development and peace. To meet the challenges that humanity faces today, we will need the free and full contributions of everyone. And that means fighting racism and the legacy of slavery, which is still at work all around us.
Racial discrimination is especially harmful to the women, men and children whose equality is denied, and whose rights are violated and blocked. But in a broader sense, racism damages us all. All of humanity is made poorer when groups of people are demeaned, dehumanised and held back from realising their full potential.
In this anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is urgent that we renew our commitment to eliminating racism. And not just our commitment: our action.
So in 2023, how can we honour the memory of the victims of slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Working to dismantle its ideology of contempt and oppression, with effective implementation of strong policies and laws. Working to abolish its legacy of exploitation and structural inequalities – including in the use of human and natural resources, and between developed and developing countries. And working to redress and correct its lasting consequences – including racist practises and policies in schools, law enforcement, health-care and employment.
On this day, I remember the millions of victims who were torn from their homes, sold and exploited. I honour their humanity.