Transformative Education, Concrete Steps Key to Address Scars of Transatlantic Slave Trade, End Socioeconomic Disparities, Speakers Tell General Assembly
Secretary-General Calls for Lessons in School Curricula on Causes, Far-Reaching Consequences, at Meeting Marking International Observance
The scars of slavery are still visible around the world as disparities in wealth, income, health and education, speakers in the General Assembly emphasized, calling for transformative education that acknowledges this history, as well as concrete measures to address the resulting inequalities.
Speaking at the commemorative meeting of the General Assembly to mark the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the enterprise of enslavement as the largest legally sanctioned forced migration in human history. Millions of African children, women and men were kidnapped and trafficked across the Atlantic, ripped from their families and homelands.
“We can draw a straight line from the era of colonial exploitation to the social and economic inequalities of today,” he said, adding that the history of racialized chattel slavery is a history of colossal injustice. From the slavers, ship captains and plantation owners to the banks, insurers and corporations that financed it — slavery shows humanity at its worst, he said.
“We must learn and teach the history of Africa and the African diaspora, whose people have enriched societies wherever they went,” Mr. Guterres continued. Governments everywhere should introduce lessons into school curricula on the causes and far-reaching consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, he said. Studying the prevailing assumptions and beliefs that allowed the practice of slavery to flourish for centuries can also unmask the racism of modern times. And honouring the victims of slavery helps restore some measure of dignity to those who were so mercilessly stripped of it, he added.
Csaba Kőrösi (Hungary), President of the General Assembly, also stressed the importance of education as he highlighted the theme of this year’s commemoration: “Fighting slavery’s legacy of racism through transformative education”. Slavery was perpetrated, not only in full view of the law, but also with its support, he pointed out. Citing George Orwell who said that “the most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history”, he stressed the need to reshape education systems and curricula and pointed to the many stories that need to be remembered, from the significance of the 1791 uprising on the island of Saint Domingue-Haiti to the selfless struggle of the great abolitionists such as Frederic Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Education is crucial to tackle revisionism and transform the painful stories of racism into a future that is rooted in justice and equality, he said.
Many proud nations have been built on the principles of equality and freedom while practising racial slavery, he pointed out, adding that the cost of freedom for some was an incalculable amount of trauma and forced labour and systematic violence for others. Recalling his visit a few years ago to Cape Coast in Ghana, one of the former centres of slave trade, he described the prison cells and tunnels where human beings were imprisoned, turned into slaves, then exported to the slave markets of the New World. While the transatlantic slave trade is over, the foundations on which it stood have not been fully dismantled, he said, noting the persistent existence of anti-Black racism. Noting that this crime against humanity was not an authorless one, he said: “We must acknowledge the responsibility of all the States, institutions, religious groups, businesses, banks, insurance companies and individuals who profited from slavery.”
Also delivering opening remarks was Djamila Taís Ribeiro, winner of Jabuti Literary Prize 2020, who pointed to the limitations of the common expression “leave the past behind”. In Brazil, leaving the past behind was used as an ideological strategy to overlook the history of oppression and ignore the damage caused to the Black population by nearly 400 years of slavery. Brazil was the last country in Latin America to abolish slavery, she said, and it imposed the ideology of racial democracy after abolition. Describing racial democracy as a romantic idea of overcoming racial conflicts by denying racism, she said it has undermined Black peoples’ search for memory and truth, as well as the real understanding of the consequences of enslavement. As a result, reparation policies have been delayed for decades, she said.
She highlighted the collective efforts of activists and critical intellectuals in Brazil who have exposed the wounds of the past. “History needs to be remembered so that, in the present, we can overcome and transform its consequence and build a more hopeful future,” she noted. It is not a question of leaving the past behind but of bringing the past to light so that the present can be better understood. Telling the history of those who have been victims of human trafficking is an important step in acknowledging the past so that “the ghosts can no longer haunt us”. Stressing the healing power of acknowledgement, she declared: “we need to tell the history of slavery from the perspective of those who resisted and fought”.
The Assembly also heard from Taylor Cassidy, youth advocate, who recalled how her mother and grandmother taught her about inspiring figures such as the outspoken civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells and the adventurous civil aviator Bessie Coleman, as well as the painful and joyful struggle of her ancestors and others for equality and justice. However, when she searched for these histories in her school textbooks, she found a single page describing the 400-year long history of trauma, suffering and faceless victims who happened to look like her, “as if it were a brief footnote in the history of my country and the world”, she said. She was left, she said, with “a strong feeling of an education unfinished”; with the thought: “How could the past be so easily forgotten and condensed onto one poorly written piece of paper?”
When she turned 17, she therefore decided to take up the torch, and to teach everyone around her about the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the future for which the victims had fought. Underscoring the need to invest in quality education, she said it is key to countering injustice, at a time when racism still affects laws, systems and the descendants of its victims. As someone who grew up with two powerful role models, she said it is her privilege to be a part of the transformative education movement and to educate her peers as a way to honour the sacrifices of her ancestors.
Speaking on behalf of the African Group, Alhaji Fanday Turay (Sierra Leone), urged further awareness-raising on the impact and legacy of slavery. It is a “travesty”, he said, that beyond a century since the abolition of the enterprise that was the transatlantic slave trade, people of African descent continue to confront systemic and structural forms of hatred, which denies them their human rights and dignity. Calling on Governments to address these issues, which result in social exclusion, the perpetuation of racism, prejudice and discrimination, he added: “States should not be afraid to confront their role in slavery and transatlantic slave trade and take appropriate measures to redress and correct its lasting consequences.” The implementation of the right to development, the reform of the international economic and financial system to fight poverty and promote the development of Africa would be encouraging steps in the right direction.
Noel Martin Matea (Solomon Islands), speaking on behalf of the Asia-Pacific States, underscored the need to educate future generations about the causes, consequences, lessons and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as to end all forms racism and racial discrimination, human trafficking, and any form of slavery in the world today. Despite progress to prohibit modern-day slavery under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he noted that, as of 2021, about 50 million people were estimated to remain entrapped in it, either forced to work against their will, or in a marriage they were forced into. Calling on the global community to redouble its efforts to bring an end to this injustice, he stressed: “Not to do so is to be complicit.” No adult or child should be subject to the barbaric practices of human trafficking for cheap labour, sexual purposes, organ transplants, ancestral debt bondage, bonded or forced labour, domestic servitude, or the unlawful recruitment of child soldiers, he said.
Stan Oduma Smith (Bahamas), speaking for the Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries, pointed to the racism, hate speech and malignant prejudices in beliefs and actions that continue to adversely impact people of African descent across the world. Underlining the importance of transformative education to deconstruct racial narratives, challenge assumptions and promote diversity, he spotlighted the “Ten True Stories of Dutch Colonial Slavery” exhibition currently on display at United Nations Headquarters. The exhibit underscores “the power in telling the stories of our ancestors”, he noted, adding that numerous forms of slavery still exist today, such as forced labour, domestic servitude, debt bondage, forced marriage, sexual slavery, child soldiers and human trafficking. Calling for collective action to dismantle the transnational criminal structures that sustain these and other forms of exploitation and subjugation, he supported the elaboration of a United Nations declaration on the promotion, protection and full respect of the human rights of people of African descent.
Olivier Maes (Luxembourg), speaking on behalf of the Western European and Other States Group, said the transatlantic slave trade was “an unparalleled tragedy”, which persisted for over four centuries and involved unspeakable atrocities and the cruel enslavement of more than 13 million African men, women and children, many of whom perished during the horrific journey across the Atlantic. “The legacy of centuries of enslavement and exploitation reverberates to this day,” he observed, noting the key importance of transformative education in the fight against slavery’s persisting legacy of racism. In the same vein, it is critical to shed a light on the heritage and important contributions of people of African descent and pay tribute to their many achievements. Describing racial discrimination as an unacceptable affront to the human dignity of all persons, he underlined the need to unequivocally condemn racism whenever and wherever it occurs. “We urgently need to address ongoing racial inequalities and injustices,” he declared, warning that perpetrators continue to exploit and control adults and children, profiting by subjecting them to trafficking, slavery, sexual exploitation, forced labour and forced criminality.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield (United States), shared the history of her ancestors who were subjected to the horrors of a system where human beings were bought, trafficked, imprisoned, sold and owned as property into perpetuity. “My great-grandmother Mary Thomas, born in 1865, was the child of a slave,” she added. “This is just three generations back from me.” Through understanding history “we can start to untangle the lasting, shameful legacy of slavery and anti-Black racism”, she continued. It is undeniable that this legacy prevents people of African descent from reaching their full potential even today. Structural racism weakens societies, makes countries less prosperous and less equitable. Underscoring her Government’s commitment to expanding economic opportunities for Black families and supporting historically Black colleges, she also urged countries to implement the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Several delegates took the floor to stress the importance of addressing the lingering effects of racial slavery. The representative of Barbados, speaking for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) said that many of his group’s countries face constant reminders of its residual effects in the daily lives of its citizens, from high national debt to persistent poverty, as well as psychological and racial trauma. Calling on the international community to tackle these inconvenient truths, he said the group will pursue the establishment of a mechanism for reparations within the context of the United Nations.
Brazil’s delegate expressed concern about children and young people, particularly girls, who are victims of racism and racial discrimination. Brazil’s federal law calls for the teaching of African history and Afro-Brazilian culture, he said, also highlighting the Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site in Rio de Janeiro, which is where 900,000 enslaved people reached the South American continent.
“For some of you, Haiti evokes the image of poverty, constant crisis and natural disasters,” the representative of that country said, describing his country as the first Black republic of the world. Noting that slavery was fuelled by the racist ideologies of the Enlightenment that held that the White race was superior to the Black race, he recalled the Haitian revolution in which slaves waged a war of liberation against the French colonial rulers and won the independence of the country in 1804. That was the first successful slave revolt in history, he noted, adding that the world owes Haiti a moral debt.
Also speaking today were the representatives of Ecuador, China and Cameroon.
The General Assembly will reconvene on Wednesday, 29 March, at 10 a.m. to consider a report by the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States in respect of climate change, and for a general debate on the role of diamonds in fuelling conflict.