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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

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

Abolition of slavery

20 March 2018

(in conformity with the UN General Assembly adopted in December 2007 which proclaimed the 25 March of each year as the international day for the celebration of the abolition of Slavery)
Geneva, 20 March 2018, 13.30-15.00
Address by DHC Gilmore

Distinguished panellists and participants,
Colleagues and friends,

For more than four centuries, the world put into practice a system of commerce founded on such utter degradation of certain people; so that people unrelentingly and without relief would be comprehensively stripped – for commercial gain – of all that is required to live in dignity or everything that amounts to a recognizable form of humanity.

It was the longest running, most brutal chapter of human history because it was also celebrated, defended ruthlessly and exploited mercilessly.

The transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans -  a trade in human beings; the intended result of respected legal, social, economic and politic institutions, it lasted from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century.

Actual numbers of those cruelly robbed of their identities, families, homes, lands, cultures, voices – actual numbers can never be confirmed.  But more than 15 million men, women and children were abducted, transported under extreme force to destinations thousands of miles away.  Millions of course, women, men, children, the new born, never lived to see landfall, dying in the course of their horror journey. Millions though survived to be sold – primarily on American soil - as mere merchandise thence to be further exploited, brutalised and to spend and then lose their lives under the most horrific of circumstances.

Today we honour the memory of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.  We honor their stories.  We honor their struggles for freedom and their fights for equality.

We honor further the legacy of their suffering and their endurance, which is today a sacred obligation – a sacrosanct duty – falling to each of us - to do all that we possibly can to ensure that never again should a shadow so gross and so toxic be cast over the human community.  That never again should the callous greed of a malignant few be sated at unfathomable cost to so many.  That never again should baseless bigotry entrap and enchain; or pernicious prejudice lash and whip; or heinous hate so maim, wound and destroy.

This Day of Remembrance, established by the General Assembly in 2007, acknowledges a rank chapter in human history.    Story told and story denied, yet still today the story’s aftermath warps and morphs the social, cultural, political and even economic interactions between and among people and across and between countries.

But as we remember, let us also recall.  For on this Day we recall too the enormous contribution of people of African descent the world over - specifically in the context of the trans America slave trade - an immeasurably important contribution to the world’s economies, cultures and communities. 

The International Decade of People of African Descent brings such recognition, justice and development for people of African descent to the fore.  Yet it does so in the context of continued denial of rights, given the grave impediments to rights realization of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afro-phobia and the toxic intersections these hatreds forge with others such as sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia. 

Colleagues and Friends,

Slavery is not an abomination only of the past.  For despite the several international legal instruments that now make explicit and global its prohibition, the slave trade and slavery continue.   Indeed, denigration of people for the purpose of their exploitation is a current, not only an historical, practice. In 2016, the ILO estimated that 40 million people remain enslaved or working in slavery-like conditions, of which ten million were children. As recently as last year, media reports documented migrants of African descent being auctioned off as slaves.

Yet slavery today remains mostly hidden from sight, as forced and bonded labour, as forced marriage, child labour, human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Like yesterday’s victims of slavery, today’s are rarely provided redress or rehabilitation – despite this being an formal obligation on States.


Eradication of modern slavery is a commitment of the 2030 Agenda.  But to fully eradicate slavery, we need more than effective national legislative and policy measures alone -  we need to transform the structural socioeconomic dynamics that enable these crimes to flourish.  

Ending contemporary forms of slavery requires a broader struggle to combat their root causes – which are poverty, illiteracy, lack of education, deprivation of land, exploitative informal sector work, discrimination, gender inequality, racism and prejudice.  Eradication of these too are commitments of the 2030 Agenda, which is why in combination with the Member States’ promise to leave no one behind, the sustainable development goals and target offer a major opportunity to eradicate slavery once and for all.


The very first anti-enslavement campaigners were the enslaved people themselves – human rights defenders, organizing - through civil action - for defence of rights.  The great rebellion of slaves in 1791 in Santo Domingo marked the beginning of a decade long struggle that would see the formation of the sovereign state that would be called Haiti.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a few dedicated abolitionists – also human rights defenders – took on the vested interests of state, church and big business to end slavery – a campaign in which, and I quote, “people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years over someone else's rights but their own” (Adam Hochshild – Bury the Chains).

This year as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we also campaign for precisely that – for people to stand up for someone else’s human rights, today.

To do so is to honor the victims of modern slavery, and respect the memories of those who were casualties of the transatlantic slave trade - over so many decades - so many decades ago.  But we – as the international community – must do more.  We must recognise the sheer radioactivity of slavery’s impact – the continued impact of its aftermath on people of African descent today – an impact with a half-life of such duration that it still would rob people of their full life. 

Countries must take urgent and effective measures to overturn that toxic legacy, to put an end to racism and xenophobia, and take all reasonable measure to ensure the conclusive end and non-repetition of the suffering that slavery in all its form exacts.

Never again. Nunca mas. Plus jamais.

Thank you.