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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

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

24 March 2014

Side-event at the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council

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

Opening address by
Ms. Navi Pillay
High Commissioner for Human Rights

Monday 24 March 2014, 13h15
Room XXV, Palais des Nations

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Every year, on the 25th of March, we observe the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We do this to honour and to commemorate the millions of people who were enslaved during this sombre chapter of history. It is also an occasion to renew our determination to ensuring that no woman, man or child is ever again treated as a commodity — as less than a human being.

Part of that commitment involves the continuing education of future generations. We still live with the legacy of transatlantic slavery today. It includes racism and racial discrimination — particularly against people of African descent — as well as ongoing inequalities, injustices and exploitation.

I applaud the progress made towards building the United Nations Permanent memorial in Honour of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Permanent Memorial, which is expected to be completed later this year in New York, will honour and remember the victims of the brutal slave system. They include both those who suffered and died as a result of the trans-Atlantic trade in human beings, and those who fell victim to other forms of enslavement. The Memorial will also increase awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice today.

I commend, too, the key role played by UNESCO in educating the world against racism. Its ambitious Slave Route Project, whose theme is “Breaking the silence”, has for the past twenty years contributed to our knowledge about centuries of the slave trade across the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian Oceans.

Every country should develop educational programmes that instil in future generations an understanding of the lessons and consequences of slavery and the slave trade.  Ignorance, and the distortion and falsification of historical facts, foster racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. It is important to ensure that textbooks and other educational materials reflect accurately what really happened during the atrocities of the past. I also urge museum curators and other cultural officials to consider much more creative deployment of visual imagery, such as exhibitions. These can more vividly acknowledge a society's involvement in past chapters of history, and thus inspire community-wide reflection. 

We must be grateful to our forebears for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But the long catalogue of horrors suffered in history by people of African descent continues to take a heavy toll. This is evident from many indicators of world poverty, under-development, insecurity and socio-economic vulnerability.

I have been heartened by the words of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, which acknowledges that slavery and the slave trade — including the trans-Atlantic slave trade ­— were appalling tragedies, not only because of their barbarity but also in terms of their magnitude, organised nature and negation of the essence of the victims. The Durban Declaration acknowledges that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been acknowledged to be so.

Next month the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action will start drafting the programme of action for the International Decade for People of African Descent. The Decade planned to begin in 2015 will create an opportunity to mobilize the world's energies to promote equality for people of African descent.  It will contribute to greater economic and social development, social justice and inclusion. I urge the Working Group to negotiate in a constructive atmosphere to achieve a compelling and comprehensive programme.

But despite our hopes, we must also acknowledge with heavy heart that albeit the prohibition of slavery, it continues to persist in contemporary forms. These include forced and bonded labor, human trafficking, sexual slavery and early and forced marriage. The United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, administered by my Office, focuses on providing assistance to the victims of such violations. Over the years, the Trust Fund has provided support to approximately 500 projects, directly assisting thousands of victims and potential victims of contemporary forms of slavery in more than 90 countries in all regions of the world.

On this day of grief and remembrance, we should commit to redoubling our efforts to rid the world from contemporary forms of slavery. Such violations to the equality, dignity and rights of us all must be eradicated. I hope all States will vigorously support this goal, so that we can truly honour all the victims of slavery.

Thank you.