Seventy-eighth Session,
64th Meeting (AM)

Despite Abolition of Slavery, Its Legacy Still Looms Large Today, President Tells General Assembly Commemoration Meeting, Underscoring Need for Accountability

Organ Also Decides to Hold High-level Meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance, Adopts Text Proclaiming International Day of Play

The scourge of slavery has left a painful legacy through persisting inequities, as well as marginalization, dehumanization and brutality, speakers in the General Assembly emphasized today, underscoring the need for education about its causes and consequences, as well as for meaningful collective action to end its modern-day forms and build a more just world.

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 on behalf of UN-Secretary General António Guterres, Courtenay Rattray, Chef de Cabinet of the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, observed that “for 400 years enslaved Africans fought for their freedom, while colonial Powers and others committed horrific crimes against them”.  Many of those who organized and ran the transatlantic slave trade amassed huge fortunes, while the enslaved were deprived of education, health care, opportunity and prosperity.  “This laid the foundations for a violent discrimination system based on white supremacy that still echoes today,” he stressed, calling for “reparatory justice frameworks to help overcome generations of exclusion and discrimination”.  “We appeal for the space and necessary conditions for healing, repair and justice, and above all, we resolve to work for a world free of racism, discrimination and bigotry,” he said.

Speaking for himself, he commemorated the courage of enslaved Africans and their descendants who resisted oppression throughout history.  Pointing out the ongoing struggle for rights and for freedoms faced by people of African descent worldwide, he noted that “the original lie of white supremacy”, which justified the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the apartheid system, continues to poison societies.  Against this backdrop, he emphasized the need “to reject and dismantle racist oppression and the spread of hatred and lies online and confront slavery’s lasting legacy of marginalization and impoverishment”.  “We must reverse the consequences of generations of exclusion and discrimination,” he stressed, calling for collective action to heal intergenerational trauma, reject discrimination, and build a more just and equal world for all.

Dennis Francis (Trinidad and Tobago), President of the General Assembly, also stressed the need for collective action to counter the toxic legacy of slavery, as he highlighted the theme of this year’s commemoration:  “Creating global freedom:  Countering racism with justice in societies and among nations”.  “On this day, we pause to reflect and remember the tens of millions of enslaved Africans who were trafficked and sold into bondage,” he said, adding:  “In their memory, we still feel the painful brutality they enduredvs in their struggle for freedom.”  Against that backdrop, he underscored the urgent need for accountability and reparations, noting that, despite the abolition of slavery a century ago, its legacy looms large today, with people of African descent continuing to experience systemic racism and discrimination.

He went on to call on States, institutions and individuals to acknowledge their roles in perpetuating these legacies of injustice, and to take meaningful steps towards reparatory justice, spotlighting, to this end, his convening, on the morning of 26 March, of a Gayap Dialogue featuring a small number of cross-regional group of Permanent Representatives.  Echoing the call of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent for the proclamation of a second International Decade — focusing on reparatory justice, recognition and equity — he stressed, “It is high time to right the wrongs of systemic racism and injustice.”

Also delivering opening remarks was Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, and Chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission, who called slavery the “greatest crime against humanity” in the modern era and in any era of human development.  Europe and colonial empires devised this evil enterprise by which African bodies were enslaved, commodified and dehumanized, in a strategy that converted criminality into capital, and left a legacy of unhealed wounds.  Noting that the legacy of slavery continues to yoke Black folks in the aftermath of “this tsunami of economic marginalization and political victimization”, he called for justice for the people of Haiti, who were demonized rather than deified for trying to end slavery by France and supported by Europe and the United States, forcing them to pay blood money as reparations for defeating their enslavers.

He highlighted that such examples of duplicity are endless in the modern world, drawing attention to the ongoing cruelty and military barbarity in Gaza.  “We know all too well the narratives and tools of terror,” he said, pointing to the colonization, racism, genocide, forced starvation and animalization of human beings unfolding on television screens.  Such cruelties were honed in the cradle of Caribbean history, he said, recalling that the first Slave Code [the Barbados Slave Code] was passed in Barbados, the place of his birth, in 1661, and defined Africans — by law — as “non-humans, property and real estate”.  Against this backdrop, he underscored the need to unite to end all massacres of innocent people whose only sin is demanding freedom and justice.  As well, he underscored the need for the Western world to agree to pay reparatory justice for those who survived “this African Holocaust”, bringing to closure the crime of enslavement.

The Assembly also heard from Yolanda Renee King, youth activist, who recounted her family’s legacy of activism, including that of her grandparents, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King, and their parents.  Reflecting on her visit to the Ark of Return, she recalled her grandmother’s words, highlighting that their African ancestors, brought to the United States in shackles, possessed “a mighty spirit” that their captors could not destroy.  This spirit, she noted, endured despite the brutal legacy of slavery, finding noble expression in the arts and other creative endeavours.

This resilience and resistance of the ancestors paved the way for future generations, she said, urging to raise awareness about the historical impact of slavery and its lasting effects on the societies today.  With over 50 million people living in slavery today according to the UN estimates, she called for global solidarity to eradicate systemic racism, inequality, violence and poverty.  “We should keep our focus on the present,” she emphasized, underscoring the need for intergenerational cooperation and activism to fulfil her grandparents’ vision of a more just and compassionate world.

Speaking on behalf of the African Group, the representative of Uganda voiced empathy for the descendants of those who suffered through the abomination of slavery, recognizing the persistent legacy of oppression and inequity affecting communities worldwide.  “This commemoration compels us to face the harrowing realities of our history and to ensure that the narratives of the victims persist in our collective memory,” she said, underlining the need to educate succeeding generations regarding slavery and to foster a culture of tolerance and harmony.  The Group renews its pledge to eradicate all contemporary forms of slavery and trafficking in persons and urges the global community to intensify its efforts to eradicate the causes of such human rights abuses.  Noting persisting barriers faced by those of African heritage, she called on Member States and civil society to undertake initiatives that promote equity and impartiality in decision-making ahead of the Summit of the Future.

The representative of Bahrain, speaking on behalf of the Group of the Asia-Pacific States, stressed that justice is crucial to acknowledge the fundamental dignity, equality and rights of people of African descent, and urged the international community “to step up its efforts to address social and economic inequalities, hatred, racism and prejudice”.  Equally, it is important to continue educating and informing current and future generations about the causes, consequences and lessons of slavery, as well as the right to seek reparation.  Voicing concern over the scourge of modern slavery, she called for redoubling efforts to eradicate forced labour, human trafficking and child labour in all its forms and to continue to act in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The representative of Guatemala, speaking on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, said that the day marked an occasion to “commemorate the victims of a global system of exploitation and dehumanization, which engendered unprecedented wealth for many nations, while begetting death and intergenerational trauma”.  Pointing to the legacy of colonialism in her region, she honoured the Indigenous People who also lost their lives due to the slave trade.  Noting the year’s theme on access to justice and accountability, she underscored the need for reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence to combat racism, one of the legacies of slavery.  As well, she echoed the Secretary-General’s call for reparatory justice, and called for collective action to dismantle the transnational criminal structures that sustain modern-day slavery and other forms of exploitation, citing International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that reveal a significant rise in forced labour and forced marriage over the last five years.

The representative of Germany, speaking on behalf of the Group of Western European and Other States, said that the transatlantic slave trade remains “an unparalleled tragedy”, which involved “unspeakable atrocities and the enslavement of millions of Africans, of whom many died”.  Calling for the continued efforts to educate everyone on the history of slavery, it’s devastating consequences and long-lasting impacts, he emphasized the importance of highlighting the rich heritage and significant contributions of people of African descent.  “The wrongs of the past cannot be undone, but we can learn from them,” he said, urging to address the trauma caused by slavery and tackling obstacles to the equal participation in all spheres of society by the descendants of those affected by the slavery.  Against this backdrop, he called for complying with the relevant obligations under international law, while underscoring the commitment to prevent and eliminate racial discrimination and to fight racism and xenophobia.

For his part, Haiti’s delegate, speaking on behalf of CARICOM, and aligning himself with the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, said that, although slavery in the Caribbean was first abolished in Haiti in 1804, the broader region is constantly reminded of the legacy of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade through their residual effects, including high national debt, poverty and institutional deficiencies.  “After almost 200 years since our ancestral freedom, it is clear that not all are granted the essential freedoms to achieve the inalienable rights of every human being,” he emphasized.  Deploring a global economy hinged on a “self-perpetuating system of poverty”, in which it is more expensive for poor indebted countries to meet their needs, he underscored the need for equity to be brought about through reforming the international financial architecture, including the private sector.  CARICOM calls on Member States to join efforts to address the issue of reparatory justice and acknowledge the harms caused by slavery, as well as the need for restoration.

The representative of the United States noted that slavery was not only a problem in the southern region of her country but also in the north, including in New York City, where roughly one in five people in Manhattan were enslaved by the middle eighteenth century.  Calling for a reckoning with the devastating consequences of anti-Black racism, including its impact on peace, democracy and the rule of law, she emphasized that facing “these painful realities head on” is the only way to remove the systemic racism from societies.  In that context, she highlighted the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to address systemic racism, including executive orders and initiatives to advance equity and inclusion.  “The legacy of slavery is still with us and can be felt around the world,” she said, underscoring the importance of acknowledging and learning from this history to forge a better future.

In other business, the Assembly also adopted a text (document A/78/L.53) titled “International Day of Play”, proclaiming 11 June as the International Day of Play, to be observed annually.  Introducing that text, the speaker for Viet Nam stated that play is not merely a leisure activity, but a vital component of human development, which contributes to the holistic growth of individuals and serves as a universal language that transcends age, culture and social barriers.  The act of play stimulates brain development, enhances social skills, helps regulate emotions and promotes health and fitness as well as fosters resilience and creativity.  For children, play helps build relationships and impulse control and helps develop the experience they need to thrive in a rapidly changing world, he said, pointing out that the right to play is recognized as a fundamental right in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Therefore, the proclamation is a milestone to preserve and prioritize play so that all people, especially children, can thrive to their full potential, he added.

By another text (document A/78/L.50) adopted, the Assembly decided to hold a one-day high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance convened by the President of the General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters in New York on 26 September, during the general debate of the Assembly at its seventy-ninth session.  The meeting, consisting of an opening segment, a plenary segment for general discussion, two multi-stakeholder panels and a brief closing segment, will have the overall theme “Investing in the present and securing our future together:  accelerating multisectoral global, regional and national actions to address antimicrobial resistance”.

For information media. Not an official record.