PRESS CONFERENCE ON INTERNATIONAL DAY OF REMEMBRANCE OF VICTIMS OF SLAVERY, TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
25 March 2008
The first-ever International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade was being observed at the United Nations today to commemorate the victims of that “scar on humanity”, teach the present and future generations about the causes, consequences and lessons of the slave trade, and warn of the dangers of racism and prejudice, Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.
Introducing the event, he said the Day of Remembrance had been established by the General Assembly last December and would now be observed annually on 25 March. Organized by the Caribbean Community, the African Union, the United States Mission and the Department of Public Information, this morning’s commemoration was the beginning of a week-long programme to create awareness.
Speaking to the press on the occasion of the Day were Harry Belafonte, a singer, human rights activist and Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF; Donald Payne, United States Congressman; Christopher Fitzherbert Hackett, Permanent Representative of Barbados and current Chair of the Caucus of the Permanent Representatives of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to the United Nations; and Augustine P. Mahiga, Permanent Representative of the United Republic of Tanzania and current Chair of the African Union.
Mr. Hackett said that he was happy that the CARICOM initiative for designating an annual International Day of Remembrance had become a reality. In addition to the education campaign that the Department of Public Information would be carrying out, CARICOM emphasized the need for a permanent memorial in the halls of the United Nations to help remember the victims of slavery. Towards that end, a fund had been established, and a committee chaired by the Permanent Representative of Dominica was expected to hold its first meeting in the coming weeks. Other members of the committee would include the representatives of Brazil, Ghana, the Netherlands, Senegal, United Kingdom, Portugal and CARICOM.
Mr. Mahiga said that, apart from the overarching objectives of awareness and solidarity with the victims of the slave trade for the past 400 years, the Day should be an occasion for Africa to deepen and strengthen its historical links with people of African descent in the Americas. It was an occasion to create a bridge across the Atlantic, which would be used to exchange political solidarity and knowledge. It was in that context that Tanzania was hosting a Leon Sullivan African American summit in June this year -- one of the most prominent conduits for strengthening partnership and solidarity between the peoples of Africa and the Americas.
The Day of Remembrance was also an occasion to address all other evils associated with discrimination and the violation of human rights, he continued. It was time for Africa to highlight that poverty, disease and ignorance continued to enslave the African people. He hoped that message would resonate on both sides of the Atlantic and help to tap the skills, support and resources available in the Americas to help the African continent.
“On this occasion, we not only remember the victims of the inhumane practice of being enslaved -– we also rededicate ourselves to addressing modern-day slavery and other injustices around the world”, said Congressman Payne. He hoped the bill he had introduced in the United States Congress to establish a commission to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, which had been signed into law by President Bush on 5 February, would help to promote better understanding of the horrors and aftermath of slavery and would add to the important dialogue about race. The commission would plan, develop and execute relevant programmes and activities, which would highlight that important chapter in history.
Mr. Belafonte said that much had been accomplished and much had been promised in the commemoration of the abolition of slavery. What should be central, however, was “how to inform our young” and to teach them, so that the horrors of the past never happened again.
The symbols that had once identified slavery were long since gone, but “slavery is still with us”, he said. It had been codified and driven underground, but it still existed under new names. Some two billion people all over the world languished in poverty. The fact that people were not actually shackled, as they had been in the slave trade days, did not diminish the fact that the slave mentality and mechanisms were still very much part of our lives. In that context, words like “globalization” and “free trade” described, in fact, a free-for-all for the very rich to exploit the very poor. It was necessary to talk very seriously and deeply about that phenomenon.
Responding to a question about reparations, Mr. Hackett said it was an important, yet sensitive issue, which a number of Caribbean countries had raised. Essentially, cooperation was required from everybody who had been involved in the slave trade, and it was important to engage all those principal actors in the discussion. “So, I can’t sit here and tell you that we envision that there will be some action or decision next week or next month, but it is an issue we consider to be important, and we’ll continue to engage all those, in the hope that, in the near future, some positive decision can be taken,” he said. He would like to see some funding to support the continued development of those societies that had experienced slavery.
Mr. Payne added that some United States companies were dealing with the issue of reparations “on their own” in Chicago and other parts of the country. Personally, he was a co-sponsor of legislation to have a commission study the question of reparations.
Mr. Belafonte said that the 2001 Durban Conference had revealed a deeper story on racism than he had ever imagined. Following that event, many countries in Latin America, including Venezuela, Nicaragua, Colombia and Brazil, had created commissions and centres of study, looking at the heritage and contribution of Afro-Latinos. Some constitutions now insisted on appropriate African-Latino participation in Government affairs. However, there was still a great distance between the realities of slavery, much of which still continued to plague the world, and the nuances of people’s daily lives. It was important to educate the younger generations and engage communities in the efforts to invest in young people.
Mr. Payne added that one of the objectives of the commemoration commission would be to have the question of transatlantic slave trade and its impact studied throughout the country. In New Jersey, legislation had been passed to create a commission to integrate the contributions of African Americans in the history books of the United States.
To another question, Mr. Mahiga replied that more needed to be done in terms of education and research. In addition to the five subregions of the African continent, the African Union had established a sixth subregion to include the people of African descent in the diaspora. It was important to create a forum to learn about each other and establish dialogue. There were many Pan-Africanist movements and organizations, but it was important to update those means of communication to make them functionally oriented, by way of exchanging skills and resources between people of African descent in the Americas with those in the African continent. There were also prosperous and enterprising people in the Americas who could make a significant contribution to the development of Africa.
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