The transatlantic slave trade inflicted immense suffering on millions of innocent victims for four centuries, making it among the longest, most widespread tragedies in human history. While legalized slavery has long been abolished, slavery-like practices are very much with us — from debt bondage and domestic servitude to forced or early marriages, the sale of wives and trafficking in children.
Extensive scholarship has documented these horrors, including through various efforts of UNESCO. Yet there remains much more to learn about the millions of Africans who were uprooted and abused, about the misery visited on their descendants, and about the impact that is felt, even today. That is why the theme of this year’s observance of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is “the living legacy of 30 million untold stories”.
By studying slavery, we help to guard against humanity’s most vile impulses. By examining the prevailing assumptions and beliefs that allowed the practice to flourish, we raise awareness about the continued dangers of racism and hatred. And by honouring slavery’s victims — as we do with this International Day, with a permanent memorial that will be established at the UN Headquarters complex in New York, and with the observance of 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent — we restore some measure of dignity to those who had been so mercilessly stripped of it.
This observance forces us to confront human beings at their worst. But in those who opposed slavery then and now, we also celebrate people at their best: the brave slaves who rose up despite mortal risk; the abolitionists who challenged the status quo; the activists today who fight intolerance and injustice. Whether renowned or unsung, these heroes show that the pursuit of human dignity is the most powerful force of all.
On this Day, let us draw inspiration from that truth. Let us remember all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and of contemporary forms of slavery. And let us commit ourselves to eradicate such practices once and for all.