Teach Horrific History of Slavery, Secretary-General Stresses, as General Assembly Holds International Day Event Remembering Transatlantic Slave Trade Victims

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the General Assembly event marking the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in New York today:

It is an honour to be with you to commemorate the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The evil enterprise of enslavement lasted for over 400 years.  It was 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 — their communities torn apart, their bodies commodified, their humanity denied.

The history of racialized chattel slavery is a history of suffering, crime, violence and exploitation.  It is a history of colossal injustice.  Just as the slave trade underwrote the wealth and prosperity of the colonizers, it devastated the African continent, thwarting its development for centuries.

It is a history of cruelty and barbarity.  From the slavers, ship captains and plantation owners to the banks, insurers and corporations that financed it — slavery shows humanity at its worst.

But, it is also a history of awe-inspiring courage that shows human beings at their best — starting with enslaved people who rose up against impossible odds and extending to the abolitionists who spoke out against this atrocious crime.

And yet, the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade haunts us to this day.  We can draw a straight line from the era of colonial exploitation to the social and economic inequalities of today.  The scars of slavery are still visible in persistent disparities in wealth, income, health, education and opportunity.  And we can recognize the racist tropes popularized to rationalize the inhumanity of the slave trade in the white supremacist hate that is resurgent today.

The long shadow of slavery still looms over the lives of people of African descent who carry with them the transgenerational trauma and who continue to confront marginalization, exclusion and bigotry.  It is incumbent on us to fight slavery’s legacy of racism.

The most powerful weapon [in] our arsenal is education — the theme of this year’s commemoration.  Governments everywhere should introduce lessons into school curricula on the causes, manifestations and far-reaching consequences of the transatlantic slave trade.

Through our United Nations Remember Slavery Programme and UNESCO’s [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] Slave Route Project, we stand ready to assist Member States.  We must learn and teach the horrific history of slavery.

We must learn and teach the history of Africa and the African diaspora, whose people have enriched societies wherever they went, and excelled in every field of human endeavour.  And we must learn and teach the histories of righteous resistance, resilience, and defiance.

The story of Queen Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica, whose determined resistance efforts proved so successful that the British Empire had to sue for peace.  The successes of Queen Ana Nzinga of Ndongo in present-day Angola, whose deft diplomacy and military victories thwarted Portugal’s colonial ambitions and who inspired independence movements for centuries.

The courage of Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery, fought for her own freedom and then used her formidable powers to help others win theirs.  The heroism of Toussaint Louverture of Saint-Domingue, who transformed a fledgling slave rebellion into a revolutionary movement and who is today known as the “Father of Haiti”.  The reign of Abdul Kader in present-day Senegal during the Imamate of Futa Toro who prohibited the slave trade nearly one hundred years before its abolition in the United States.

By teaching the history of slavery, we help to guard against humanity’s most vicious impulses.  By studying the prevailing assumptions and beliefs that allowed the practice to flourish for centuries, we unmask the racism of our own time.  And by honouring the victims of slavery — memorialized by the Ark of Return that stands in the plaza just outside this Hall — we restore some measure of dignity to those who were so mercilessly stripped of it.

This International Day of Remembrance falls in the year of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article four of the Declaration states, and I quote:  “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

Let us give life to these words.  Let us pay tribute to the victims of the slave trade by remembering their struggle.  Let us carry it forward until every person can live a life of liberty, dignity and human rights.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.