Delegates Stress Need for Reckoning with Slavery’s Role in Perpetuating Bias, Inequality, as General Assembly Marks International Day to Remember Victims
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Delegates urged a reckoning today with how the past injustices of the transatlantic slave trade perpetuate present racial discrimination and inequality around the world, as the General Assembly held a meeting to commemorate the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The Assembly also adopted three draft resolutions and a draft decision concerning, respectively, Global Media and Information Literacy Week, the Disarmament Commission, cooperation between the United Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and cooperation between the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
In opening remarks, Assembly President Volkan Bozkir (Turkey) emphasized that the transatlantic slave trade established the inequality that exists around the world. Such trauma of violence replacing autonomy is hereditary, and many must now navigate a world built by, but not for, their ancestors, he said. “Global injustice did not just end neatly after 400 years,” he added, pointing out that more than 40 million people are estimated to live in modern slavery and calling for continued efforts to end all forms of discrimination and slavery.
Secretary-General António Guterres described racism as both a cause and a legacy of slavery, visible today in persistent racial injustice and inequality, saying that whereas the transatlantic slave trade ended more than two centuries ago, the ideas that propelled it still live as white supremacists in Europe, the United States and elsewhere organize and recruit across borders. “The irrefutable fact is that we are all equally part of one race,” he declared, warning that the world forgets that fact at its own peril.
Keynote speaker Lisa Coleman, Senior Vice-President for Global Inclusion, Diversity and Strategic Innovation and Chief Diversity Officer of New York University, explained that the construct of race was legitimized by science to justify unfree labour systems benefitting white powerholders. Although race is neither a biologically nor genetically valid way to understand humankind, the effects of racism are no less real in the lives of those impacted, she noted, stressing that understanding history and systemic inequality is foundational to global transformation.
Guyana’s representative, speaking for the Group of African States and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), also linked slavery’s legacy to entrenched racism today, pointing out that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed deep disparities in care and outcomes for persons of African descent and other minorities impacted by the coronavirus. The issue of reparations is “pivotal to restorative justice” and to creating equity for those whose “limbs and lives were used” to build societies and economies.
Cuba’s representative agreed, underlining the moral duty of developed countries to pay reparations because they and their consumer societies have benefitted from slavery. He further called for full compensation for those affected by that ongoing crime, observing that the inhuman exploitation imposed on the peoples of three continents forever marked the destiny of more than 4.5 billion people living in the “Third World” today.
The Russian Federation’s representative, said European colonial Powers and American landowners inflicted irrevocable damage on Africa, forever separating many of the continent’s people from their native soil and profiting from their misery. He went on to express his country’s pride in having fought for the independence of African States in the twentieth century and having worked towards dismantling the injustice of global colonial systems. The world must “call a spade a spade”: the transatlantic slave trade is one of the greatest crimes against humanity for which atonement has not been made.
China’s delegate stressed the link between the slave trade and discrimination, prejudice and hatred faced by people of African descent today, while expressing hope that the United States will address its issues with racism and police brutality while protecting the rights of its racial minorities. They continue to suffer in that country, he said, noting the 3,795 attacks against people of Asian descent since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the most recent shootings in Atlanta claiming the lives of another six.
The representative of the United States said his country is still working to disentangle itself from “slavery’s wicked web”, noting that black Americans are too often funnelled into overcrowded schools, receive poorer treatment in hospitals and are denied jobs, housing and capital. Slavery’s legacy also persists in policing and the criminal justice system, as evidenced by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. “Black lives matter,” he emphasized, outlining Government efforts to promote racial justice and equity, while calling upon the international community to remember the victims of slavery, end racism and root out oppression wherever it remains.
Other delegates speaking today were the representatives of Kazakhstan (for the Group of Asia-Pacific States), Bolivia (for the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States), New Zealand (for the Group of Western European and Other States), Ukraine, Australia, Tajikistan and Slovakia.
Also delivering a statement was the representative of the European Union delegation.
The General Assembly will reconvene at a time and date to be announced.
VOLKAN BOZKIR (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, emphasized that the transatlantic slave trade established the inequality that currently exists around the world, constituting a reality in which the wealthy take everything from those who have least. However, that reality — and the ideology of supremacy that justified it — is not gone and Africa, robbed of its people, continues to grieve, he noted. That trauma of violence replacing autonomy is hereditary and many must navigate a world that was built by — but not for — their ancestors, he said.
Pointing out that more than 40 million people are estimated to live in modern slavery, he said that 71 per cent of that number are women and girls and 25 per cent constitute children. The international community cannot stand by while people suffer and nor can it permit gaslighting or recoil from honest discussions about reparatory justice, he stressed, declaring: “Global injustice did not just end neatly after 400 years.” He went on to call for continued efforts towards ending discrimination and slavery in all their forms, underlining: “All black lives matter.”
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, noted that the Assembly is honouring today the memory of millions of people of African descent who suffered immeasurably under the evil of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. At the same time, it is remembering the immense contributions of their descendants to the economies and culture of those places to which they were forcibly transported. “We support initiatives to reclaim, recover and reconstitute the history of those who were enslaved,” he said. Describing racism as both a cause and a legacy of slavery, he said the slave trade’s impact remains visible in racial injustices and inequality today. Ending slavery’s legacy of racism is a global imperative for justice, he emphasized.
The transatlantic slave trade ended more than two centuries ago, but the ideas that propelled it remain alive today, with white supremacists in Europe, the United States and elsewhere organizing and recruiting across borders, he continued. “We must counter all lies of racial supremacy,” he stressed. “The irrefutable fact is that we are all equally part of one race — humankind. When we forget this basic fact, we imperil ourselves.” Going forward, the international community must build on the momentum of the worldwide movement against racism which emerged in 2020, he said, underlining the importance of tackling inequities and inequalities, building inclusive communities and economies, and educating about history in truly honouring the memory of slavery’s victims.
LISA COLEMAN, Senior Vice-President, Global Inclusion, Diversity and Strategic Innovation, and Chief Diversity Officer, New York University, recalled that race became a scientifically valid construct that justified unfree labour systems benefitting those defined as white, as well as the holders of land and elite power. That racism — built on stereotypes, fears and hatred — is one of the pervasive results of the extraction of human life and labour, she said, adding that it continues to impact the world’s institutions and day-to-day engagements, as evidenced by assaults on black people in grocery stores, parks and restaurants. She stressed that patterns of inequity are not inevitable, innate or natural, yet they remain acutely entrenched.
Although race is neither a biologically nor genetically valid way to understand humankind, the effects of racism are no less real in the lives of those impacted, she said, emphasizing that the real and deadly impact thereof is exemplified by the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson and others. In many cases, blackness is still seen as an inherent deficit rather than the result of centuries of historical erasures, stereotyping and governmentally sanctioned exclusion. An example is the current pandemic, she said, pointing out that media accusations of black people not following the rules replaced comprehensive investigation of exposure rates due to labour differentials directly resulting from slavery.
She went on to stress that understanding history and systemic inequality is foundational to creating global transformation. Efforts to dismantle legacies of slavery and transform societies must reckon with the truth about historical power relations, oppression and dispossession. She called for the demystification of global forms of oppression and inequity that continue to create vulnerability while fuelling and legitimizing violence. Describing the African diaspora as a “global constellation of communities” that live, innovate and create new possibilities, she said the world must invest in black peoples and cultures in order to be ready for the future of work, climate disruptions and a changing world.
MAGZHAN ILYASSOV (Kazakhstan), speaking on behalf of the Group of Asia-Pacific States, said that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade represented some of the worst violations of human rights in history. Their legacy remains at the heart of profound inequality, hatred, bigotry and prejudice throughout the world today. He emphasized that the millions of people caught up in modern-day slavery must not be forgotten and that the international community must bring an end to that injustice. He went on to express the profound concern of the Group of Asia-Pacific States at the rise in violence directed against Asians and people of Asian descent, especially after the fatal shooting of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, United States, earlier this month. Noting that modern forms of slavery can, in many cases, be traced to immigration, he called for improved global governance, border controls and measures to identify trafficking and prevent forced labour. The Group of Asia-Pacific States calls on donor countries to support the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, he said.
DIEGO PARY RODRÍGUEZ (Bolivia), speaking on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, expressed regret that the 2020 commemoration was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that the transatlantic slave trade, during which 15 million people were forcibly removed from Africa, seeded the deep inequality that persists within today’s societies. Noting that 96 per cent of enslaved Africans arrived in South America and the Caribbean, he said their descendants continue to face discrimination despite their contribution to the region’s development. Slavery continues in modern forms, representing the ultimate violation of the right to self-determination and human rights, he added, emphasizing the need for collective action to reduce inequality and end modern forms of slavery, which entraps 40 million people, one in four of them children. “We cannot be indifferent to injustice,” he stressed, appealing for collective action to implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.
CRAIG J. HAWKE (New Zealand), speaking for the Group of Western European and Other States, said that the terrible legacy of the transatlantic slave trade continues to haunt the world, with more than 40 million people currently trapped in slavery, human trafficking, forced labour and forced marriage. Furthermore, systemic racism and racial discrimination prevent many from living in safety, dignity and prosperity. Emphasizing the importance of understanding the links between past and present, he called upon the international community to recognize and oppose racism, prejudice and all forms of slavery. He also urged all States to consider ratifying or acceding to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
RICHARD M. MILLS, JR. (United States), recalling the slaves forced onto the Virginia shore 400 years ago — the “original sin” of the United States — recounted his country’s history of slavery and abolition, as well as its continuing fight against white supremacy. The United States is still working to disentangle itself from “slavery’s wicked web”, he said, noting that black Americans are too often funnelled into overcrowded schools, receive poorer treatment in hospitals and are denied jobs, housing and capital. The legacy of slavery persists in the policing and criminal justice systems, he added, recalling the tragic, senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. “Black lives matter,” he emphasized, going on to outline Government efforts to promote racial justice and equity. He went on to call upon the international community to remember slavery’s victims, end racism and root out oppression wherever it remains.
CAROLYN RODRIGUES-BIRKETT (Guyana), speaking on behalf of the Group of African States and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said the events sparked by the death of George Floyd in the United States and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement brought into sharp focus the need to pay more attention to addressing the legacy of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. That legacy is seen today in entrenched and systemic racism, she emphasized, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed deep disparities in the care and outcomes for persons of African descent and other minorities impacted by the coronavirus.
She went on to welcome the Human Rights Council’s decision in 2020 to mandate the preparation, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, of a global report on systemic racism and excessive use of force against people of African descent by law enforcement. She also described the upcoming 2021 midterm review of the International Decade for People of African Descent as an opportunity for the international community to take tangible steps towards ensuring the elimination of racism in a post-COVID world.
“In that regard, the issue of reparations is pivotal to restorative justice and to creating opportunity and equity for those whose limbs and lives were used without mercy or remuneration to build societies and strong economies,” she emphasized. The African Group and CARICOM wish to underscore the role that the multilateral system can play to ensure that the stain of slavery is finally lifted from the lives of people of African descent, she said.
PEDRO LUIS PEDROSO CUESTA (Cuba) said his country is deeply proud of its African roots and heritage. Some 300,000 African slaves arrived in Cuba to replace the indigenous population that had been nearly wiped out by Spanish colonialism, he said, recalling that freed slaves and their descendants were leading players in Cuba’s struggle for independence and self-determination. Quoting President Fidel Castro’s speech at the Durban Conference in 2001, he said the inhumane exploitation imposed on the peoples of three continents, including Asia, marked forever the destiny and lives of more than 4.5 billion people living in the “Third World” today. Developed countries and their consumer societies have benefited from slavery, he noted, emphasizing their moral duty to pay reparations, as well as full compensation for those affected by that ongoing crime. He went on to stress that the pandemic has turned a harsh spotlight on inequality, wondering how many doses of vaccine have been delivered to Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and whether people of African descent and migrants in developed countries are getting equal access to vaccinations.
OLEKSIY ILNYTSKYI (Ukraine) described as unfortunate the failure by the Group of Eastern European States to agree a joint statement for today’s meeting, just as it failed to do so when the Assembly discussed the elimination of racial discrimination last week. He went on to state that, without a doubt, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were crimes against humanity which remain a source of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Ukrainians suffered slavery from ancient times until the end of the Soviet era, with the biggest tragedy occurring during the three centuries during which they were part of the Russian empire, he said, adding that, in the former Soviet Union, all peasants were enslaved by enforced collectivization and limited freedoms. Today, Ukraine strongly condemns the glorification of totalitarian regimes, which is unfortunately the case in the Russian Federation nowadays, he said, urging the United Nations and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery to look into worrying reports of human exploitation and human trafficking in those parts of Ukraine under foreign occupation.
STEPAN Y. KUZMENKOV (Russian Federation), emphasizing the importance of understanding the legacy of the slave trade, said the world must “call a spade a spade”: the transatlantic slave trade is one of the greatest crimes against humanity for which atonement has not been made. European colonial Powers and American landowners inflicted irrevocable damage on Africa, forever separating many of the continent’s people from their native soil and profiting from their misery, he said, adding that his country is proud to have fought for the independence of African States in the twentieth century and to have worked towards dismantling the injustice of global colonial systems. He went on to point out that the ubiquitous, perilous policy of aggressive neocolonialism waged by Western States subjects sovereign States to blockades, sanctions and meddling, contrary to the principles and purposes of the United Nations.
DAI BING (China), describing the slave trade as the most appalling violation of human rights in the history of mankind, noted that people of African descent still face discrimination, prejudice and hatred as the ideology of white supremacy persists despite the end of the transatlantic slave trade more than 200 years ago. They continue to suffer in the United States, where freedom and equality are “just laws”. He went on to note that there have been 3,795 attacks in that country against people of Asian descent since the outbreak of COVID-19, with the most recent shootings in Atlanta claiming the lives of another six. Asking who the next victim will be, he expressed hope that the United States will address its racism and police brutality issues while protecting the rights of its racial minorities.
Mr. BOZKIR (Turkey), Assembly President, closed the commemorative meeting by noting that today’s statements demonstrate that, although the transatlantic slave trade ended long ago, “the scars on the human psyche remain raw” and the world is still “unpacking the impact of this moral failure”. Underlining the moral obligation to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms, he urged all Member States to engage in the twentieth commemoration of the Durban Declaration, the work of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, and the midterm review of the International Decade for People of African Descent.
Action on Drafts
The Assembly then took up the draft resolution “Global Media and Information Literacy Week” (document A/75/L.68), by which it would proclaim 24-31 October of every year Global Media and Information Literacy Week. It would invite Member States, the United Nations system, other international organizations and civil society to mark that week with, among other things, educational and public awareness activities that tackle disinformation and misinformation. The Assembly would also encourage Member States to promote media and information literacy, to increase awareness, as well as prevention capacity and resilience to disinformation and misinformation.
The representative of Australia, introducing the draft, said it complements the resolution adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2019 which proclaimed a similar week. Given how people find themselves forced to weigh various forms of information amid a global pandemic, today’s text is timely, if not overdue, he said.
The representative of the United States, speaking in explanation of position, expressed concern about preambular paragraph 11, by which the Assembly would call for balancing the fight against disinformation and misinformation with the right of individuals to freedom of expression and access to information. He expressed his delegation’s strong disagreement with the idea that respect for human rights should be balanced against other objectives.
The Assembly then adopted the draft “L.68” without a vote.
The representative of the European Union delegation said the resolution addresses “a significant challenge of our times”, adding that the ability to identify reliable and trustworthy information requires more skill than ever before. The text is timely, well balanced and action-oriented, he noted, urging all Member States to promote and implement its provisions. He also noted the crucial efforts of the Department of Global Communications through its Verified campaign, describing it as key in tackling misinformation about the pandemic. He went on to stress the importance of multilingualism in such initiatives.
The Assembly then took up the draft decision titled “Disarmament Commission” (document A/75/L.71), by which it would, recalling its decision 75/519 of 7 December 2020, decide to postpone the 2021 substantive session of the Disarmament Commission to a later period.
The Assembly then adopted “L.71” without a vote.
The Assembly then took up the draft resolution “Cooperation between the United Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization” (document A/75/L.69), by which it would acknowledge the constructive role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in securing peace and sustainable development, advancing regional development and strengthening good-neighbourliness and mutual trust. It would emphasize the importance of strengthening dialogue, cooperation and coordination between the United Nations system and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and propose that, for that purpose, the Secretary-General continue to hold regular consultations with the Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization through the existing inter-agency forums and formats.
The representative of Tajikistan, introducing the draft, said it constitutes a technical rollover from previous resolutions. Noting that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has become essential to addressing regional security, he said all member States therein will make every effort to build lasting peace in the region and promote cooperation on counter-terrorism.
The Assembly then adopted “L.69” without a vote.
In its final action, the Assembly took up the draft resolution “Cooperation between the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)” (document A/75/L.70). By its terms, the Assembly would welcome the strengthening of cooperation between the United Nations and the OECD, within their respective mandates and in line with the priorities of Member States, to accelerate the pace of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieve its Sustainable Development Goals. It would also emphasize the importance of optimal coordination and cooperation between the United Nations and the OECD to create synergies within their respective mandates.
The representative of Slovakia, introducing the draft, noted that the OECD and the United Nations, which both emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, have a long history of collaboration. Today, that cooperation spans almost every policy area in the economic, environmental and social domains, he said, adding that the main purpose of the biannual text is to profile that partnership in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Source: United Nations