|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Sixty-sixth General AssemblyPlenary83rd Meeting (AM)
GENERAL ASSEMBLY ENDORSES INITIATIVE OF MEMBER STATES TO ERECT, AT HEADQUARTERS,
PERMANENT MEMORIAL ACKNOWLEDGING VICTIMS OF SLAVERY, TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The General Assembly today, recommitting itself to honouring the victims of what several delegates called “the most tragic chapter in human history”, adopted a resolution endorsing the construction at United Nations Headquarters of a permanent memorial to those who had suffered under the yoke of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade system.
By the terms of that consensus text, the Assembly stressed the importance of educating and informing current and future generations about the causes, consequences and lessons of slavery, and requested the Secretary-General to continue organizing activities related to the commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which is held annually on 25 March.
Speaking earlier during the Assembly’s corresponding debate, several delegates added that adopting the resolution, and in turn completing the permanent memorial, were the “least the United Nations could do” to honour those who forcibly became part of the global African Diaspora.
Moreover, said the representative of Guyana, who introduced the resolution on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the memorial would offer current and future generations the opportunity to contemplate and reflect on the horrors and indignity of the ignoble system of slavery. It would also serve as a source of inspiration, a symbol of the indomitable spirit of human beings and their capacity to triumph over the worst forms of oppression and bigotry.
The permanent memorial, first called for in General Assembly resolution 62/122, was slated to be completed by the end of 2012, and would be erected in a place of prominence at United Nations Headquarters in New York. An international competition to select its design was launched in September, and a Trust Fund was established to support its construction. Numerous delegations today stressed the importance of contributing to that Fund, which to date had raised over $1 million of the estimated $4.5 million needed to complete the project.
“We are magnanimous enough to forgive, but human enough not to forget,” said the representative of the United Republic of Tanzania, speaking on behalf of the African Group of States. The transatlantic slave trade had torn millions of Africans from their homes, “dragged them in chains to the Americas and sold them as slaves”. Its most salient outcome, he stressed, was the dehumanization of people of African descent, which led to a disturbing legacy of racism and racial discrimination in many countries.
Referring to the annual International Day to commemorate victims of the slave trade, he said that event recognized the dearth of inquiry into the experience of enslaved Africans, as well as a continuing gap in literature regarding their individual and collective experiences. More efforts were needed to promote research, education and outreach programmes to fill that gap, he emphasized, adding that it was “unacceptable” to continue to sweep the identities and contributions of enslaved Africans under the carpet.
The representative of Jamaica, which chairs the Permanent Memorial Committee, said that while some of the gravest historical wrongs against humankind had been addressed, others had not. Slavery and the transatlantic slave trade had not yet met the threshold of acknowledgement and redemption, which served as rationale for continued action at the United Nations. As the theme for the permanent memorial stated, he said, we are “acknowledging the tragedy, considering the legacy, lest we forget”.
The representative of Israel agreed that the memorial was of vital importance, and stressed that today’s resolution recalled the legacy of 30 million human stories - the vast majority of them untold. The need for that memorial was clear, she said: It would complement the work of the Organization’s existing outreach programme and provide a reminder to all delegates and visitors of the slave trade’s history and lessons. Only through education, remembrance and constant vigilance could the tragedies of the past serve as clear lessons for the future, and the United Nations had a duty to take up that cause.
Meanwhile, some speakers pointed out that the unjust legacy of slavery was still alive and well in the social life of many countries. The representative of Cuba, stressing that the people of his country were proud of their heritage - which included both Spanish and African blood – said that Africans would remain exploited as long as the “unsustainable and unjust” consumption patterns continued to exclude the majority of people around the world. Former colonial metropolises must “honour their debt” to slaves; it was impossible for them to “wash their hands of the past” and of their responsibilities in that regard.
Moreover, he said, if the current system was not checked, Africa would continue to finance the “extravagance” of wealthy developed countries, while commitments to development on the African continent were not honoured. Others added that, though slavery had long since been abolished in Latin America and the Caribbean, people of African descent living in that region continued to disproportionately face extreme poverty, unemployment and other challenges.
For its consideration of the first item, the Assembly had before it a report of the Secretary-General (document A/66/162) entitled, “Permanent memorial to and remembrance of the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade: status of the United Nations Trust Fund for Partnerships – Permanent Memorial”. The report states that, as at 30 June 2011, the Fund had recorded a total of $990,700 in income, comprising voluntary contributions from Member States amounting to $944,700, private donations totalling $28,000 and accrued interest in the amount of $18,000.
Also for its consideration of the agenda item relating to the slave trade commemoration follow-up, the Assembly had before it a second report of the Secretary-General (document A/66/382) entitled, “Programme of educational outreach on the transatlantic slave trade and slavery”. Submitted pursuant to General Assembly resolution 65/239 (2010), the report outlined the related activities of the Department of Public Information. In close collaboration with States members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the African Group, the department had organized the fourth annual observance on 25 March 2011 of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The commemoration’s 2011 theme, “The Living Legacy of 30 Million Untold Stories”, recalled the estimated 30 million Africans who were uprooted by the system of slavery and whose many stories under that system have not been told fully. The theme emphasized the importance of a more constructive portrayal in history and literature of the diverse skills which enslaved Africans brought to the homelands they were forced to adopt, and which were indispensable contributions to the economic foundation of the countries in the Americas and of the world economy of the eighteenth century.
The outreach and awareness strategy of the Department of Public Information utilized its network of information centres to disseminate the message of the observance internationally, and promoted partnership activities with civil society organizations committed to building awareness of the dangers of racism and racial discrimination, as well as the continuing legacy of slavery and the slave trade.
The Assembly was also slated to consider a draft resolution (document A/66/L.25) on the permanent memorial to and remembrance of the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. By that resolution, the Assembly, endorsing the initiative to erect a permanent memorial at a place of prominence at United Nations Headquarters, would request the Secretary-General to organize a series of annual activities related to the commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. That would include a commemorative meeting of the General Assembly. It would further request the Department of Public Information to continue to take appropriate steps to enhance world public awareness on that issue, and would request both the Secretary-General and the United Nations Office for Partnerships to report on that programme of educational outreach – including on actions taken by Member States – at its sixty-seventh session.
Anniversary of Abolition of Transatlantic Slave Trade
Introducing the draft resolution on the permanent memorial to and remembrance of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade (document A/66/L.25), GEORGE TALBOT (Guyana), speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said that the initiative of the Caribbean delegation, along with the African Group, to erect a memorial at Headquarters had responded to the need to honour, at a global level, “the victims of this most tragic chapter in human history.” Once completed, the memorial would offer current and future generations the opportunity to contemplate and reflect on the horrors and indignity of the ignoble system of slavery. It would also serve as a source of inspiration, a symbol of the indomitable spirit of human beings and their capacity to triumph over the worst forms of oppression and bigotry.
“With that in mind, we reaffirm our commitment to the erection of a permanent memorial in a place of prominence at United Nations Headquarters, that is accessible to delegates, United Nations staff and visitors,” he said. It was well established that the inhuman system which had led to the forced removal of millions of people over centuries from Africa to the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe, indeed the largest forced displacement of human beings in history, had contributed today to continued economic underdevelopment, social inequalities, racial discrimination and prejudice. The current resolution before delegations would have the Assembly endorse the initiative to erect the memorial and to take into account new developments, such as the conclusion of the tripartite Memorandum of Understanding, and welcome the recent launch of the international design competition.
OMBENI SEFUE (United Republic of Tanzania), speaking on behalf of the African Group, called for the outstanding physical and spiritual resilience of people of African descent, who for centuries endured and survived all manner of adversity, injustice, oppression, exploitation, discrimination and suffering, to be celebrated. “We are magnanimous enough to forgive, but human enough not to forget,” he said of the transatlantic slave trade, which tore millions of Africans from their homes, dragged them in chains to the Americas and sold them as slaves. Its most salient outcome, he stressed, was the dehumanization of people of African descent, which led to a disturbing legacy of racism and racial discrimination in many countries.
Recalling that the United Nations observed the annual International Day to commemorate victims of the slave trade earlier this year, he said that event recognized the dearth of inquiry into the experience of enslaved Africans and recognized a continuing gap in the literature regarding their individual and collective experiences. While it was bad enough to enslave Africans, it was unacceptable to sweep their identities and contributions under the carpet. More efforts were needed to promote research, education and outreach programmes to fill that gap. He praised the work of the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD) and the Department of Public Information in that regard, while also noting the erection of a permanent memorial and remembrance of the victims of slavery and the slave trade were an important component of raising awareness. He further recognized the importance and necessity of sustained voluntary contributions towards the permanent memorial.
RAYMOND O. WOLFE (Jamaica), aligning with CARICOM and the African Group, said the question continued to be asked – why did the States involved continue to feel the need to remind the world about this tragic past when there was a need to look to the future and contemporary forms of slavery. Yet, in the words of Jamaican singer Bob Marley, “in this great future, we can’t forget the past”. While some of the gravest historical wrongs against humankind had been addressed, others had not. Slavery and the transatlantic slave trade had not yet met the threshold of acknowledgement and redemption. That was the rationale for continued action at the United Nations, including to ensure that a lasting tribute be erected on its grounds. As the theme for the permanent memorial stated, we are “acknowledging the tragedy, considering the legacy, lest we forget…”
He expressed appreciation for the programme of education and outreach on the transatlantic slave trade and slavery for 2011, organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI). He encouraged that Department to ensure that the annual commemorative activities were a fitting and solemn tribute to slavery’s victims. Noting that Belgium, Oman, Finland, Guyana, Costa Rica, Slovenia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Israel and Trinidad and Tobago had contributed to the Permanent Memorial Trust Fund, he said the total amount given to date was $1.02 million.
As Chair of the Permanent Memorial Committee, he noted the launch this year of a dedicated website for that initiative: www.unslaverymemorial.org. A Facebook presence had also been set up and R&B singer Melba Moore had been appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador. Consultation had led to the signing of a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding allowing UNESCO to undertake phase one of the international design competition that was launched on 30 September. Other efforts focused on its fundraising drive, he added.
OSCAR LEÓN GONZÁLEZ ( Cuba) said that Cubans were proud of their heritage, which included both Spanish and Africans. “The slave trade left a very clear trail,” he said, referring to the Caribbean community. Indeed, that region’s cultural wealth and singularity were the result of the wisdom, languages, culture, music and verbal spirit of the slaves that were brought there, and its spirit was imbued with the courage and valour of those who had struggled against their oppression.
Today, he continued, Africans would remain exploited as long as the “unsustainable and unjust” consumption patterns continued to exclude the majority of people around the world. Former colonial metropolises must “honour their debt” to slaves; it was impossible for them to “wash their hands of the past” and of their responsibilities in that regard. Moreover, if the current system continued, Africa would continue to finance the “extravagance” of wealthy developed countries, while commitments to development on the African continent were not honoured. For its part, Cuba had established the first museum dedicated to the Slave Route in the Americas, he said. It recognized the importance of organizing annual activities under the umbrella of the United Nations and of the construction of the permanent memorial. That was “the least the United Nations could do” to honour the past and those who had suffered, he said.
GARY QUINLAN ( Australia) said the transatlantic slave trade had forcibly removed tens of millions of Africans from their communities and separated them from their families. Millions died while being transported and uncounted others while resisting the slavers. What in Swahili was known as the “Maafa – the great disaster” – was for more than 400 years the institutionalized face of the very worst kind of racism and an almost unimaginable contempt for human life. “We need to recognize the dark side of our own history and bring it into the light,” he said, stressing that the permanent memorial would be a lasting tribute to all those who had died and suffered through the slave trade.
“It will also be a physical symbol of our common obligation to remember; and acknowledge that the fight against such savagery is really never won,” he said, noting that racism always threatened and, through human trafficking, perhaps some 26 million more people were enslaved today. Educating current and future generations about the transatlantic slave trade and its lasting consequences was essential. The resolution stressed that, and Australia, he continued, had placed emphasis on the consequences of racism and prejudice in its school curriculums. Indeed, his country had seen the mistreatment of the first Australians for too long. The historic 2008 Apology to Australia’s Indigenous people had been a dramatic acknowledgement “of the many wrongs our own community has suffered”. Finally, he announced that Australia was providing a further contribution, of some $150,000, to support the permanent memorial.
MARIA LUIZA RIBEIRO VIOTTI ( Brazil) said that, as an early supporter of the permanent memorial initiative and as a repeated co-sponsor of the annual draft before the Assembly, Brazil hoped that the General Assembly would, through those actions, demonstrate its commitment to adequately honour the victims of slavery and the slave trade. As the Brazilian demographic census of 2010 had indicated, more than half of the Brazilian population had identified itself as African descended. Brazil took great pride in that legacy, which marked its society and culture in many different ways. “It is an essential part of our historic formation and of our national identity,” she stressed. That recognition had translated into a number of concrete actions. Since 2003, the Government had opened 19 new embassies in Africa and several more in CARICOM States. Commercial activity with both regions had increased, and Africa was now Brazil’s fourth largest trade partner. Among other activities, the country had also held a Brazil-CARICOM Summit in 2010, and was deeply engaged in the stabilization and development of Haiti, where it led the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
Although Brazil had formally abolished slavery 123 years ago, its enduring impact could still be felt in many aspects of its social life. People of African descent continued to disproportionately face extreme poverty, unemployment and other challenges. In that context, Brazil, alongside the Ibero-American General Secretariat, had organized a conference in Salvador, Bahia; the resulting “Declaration of Salvador” had decided to establish a Statistical Data Observatory for People of African Descent, to create a Fund for People of African Descent, and to establish a “Decade for People of African Descent in Latin America and the Caribbean”. “Only by building cultures together and creating a true atmosphere of tolerance and mutual understanding will it be possible for the international community to fight the persistent scourge of racism and racial discrimination,” she concluded.
KENDRICK MEEK ( United States) described a wide number of programmes through which his Government had commemorated the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. The United States also remained committed to promoting outreach and education to raise awareness about the slave trade and its consequences, as part of its effort to reduce prejudice and inequalities wherever they existed. He said that his Government was also pressing ahead with initiatives to tackle modern forms of racism and slavery. The United States was also honouring the historic and modern-day contributions of African Americans and persons of African descent, those who had fought for freedom during the Civil War, those who had contributed to the enrichment of the country throughout history, and those who were enhancing ordinary life in the United States today. The United States looked forward to expanding its partnerships to tackle all aspects of slavery, including its modern forms, in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
HAIM WAXMAN ( Israel) recalled Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s statement that, “If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity… hope without memory is like memory without hope.” Reaffirming memory’s vital importance, he said today’s resolution recalled the legacy of 30 million stories, the vast majority of them untold. It was among the stories of those who suffered unimaginable cruelty and persecution that the world found hope. The Jewish people knew well the joys of freedom and the pain of persecution. This was why Israel today joined hands with the nations of the world in laying the foundation for a permanent memorial at the United Nations to honour the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. It had recently contributed $20,000 to support the memorial’s construction. Indeed, the need for that memorial was clear: It would complement the work of the Organization’s existing outreach programme and provide a reminder to all delegates and visitors of the slave trade’s history and lessons. Only through education, remembrance and constant vigilance could the tragedies of the past serve as clear lessons for the future, and the United Nations had a duty to take up that cause, he emphasized.
OLIVIER MAES ( Luxembourg) paid tribute to all Member States of CARICOM and the African Group for their key role in promoting the permanent memorial. The transatlantic slave trade was undoubtedly one of history’s darkest chapters and it should not be ignored. From a political and moral point of view, that human tragedy, which lasted several centuries, must be duly commemorated. It must also permeate the world’s collective conscience, so the current and future generations could draw the right lesson and ensure it never happened again. For that reason, Luxembourg was cosponsoring the draft resolution and welcomed the consensus the text enjoyed. It had regularly contributed for years to the Trust Fund and encouraged all Member States to demonstrate tangible support to the permanent memorial. His delegation also welcomed the launch of the international design competition. Because it was also imperative that that period of history continued to be studied in depth, adequate resources must be made available to researchers.
HARDEEP SINGH PURI ( India) said the slave trade was one of the most abhorrent chapters in the history of mankind and the work of the United Nations could never be completed until the Organization condemned the transatlantic slave trade “emphatically and without reservation”. It was also necessary that the international community took upon itself to never let such crimes ever take place again. “Education has a critical role in creating awareness amongst present and future generations about the history, causes and impact of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade,” he continued, adding that India supported the various activities and programmes being carried out by the Department of Public Information to commemorate the International Day of Remembrance, annually on 25 March.
While he announced that India, with a contribution of some $260,000, was now the lead contributor to the Trust Fund for the permanent memorial, he said that it had collected just over $1 million of the estimated $4.5 million that was needed and “the international community must come forward and contribute”. “The international community cannot let the idea of this memorial just remain on the drawing board,” he said, underscoring his delegation’s firm belief that there must be a genuine acceptance of the fact that the horrible crimes associated with slavery occurred, along with the sincere repentance for their commission. India, therefore, strongly urged all countries, and especially those that had benefited from the slave trade, to come forward and contribute to the memorial project.
The Assembly then adopted without vote the resolution on the permanent memorial to and remembrance of the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade (document A/66/L.25).