Understanding Millions of Human Stories behind Facts, Slave Trade’s Figures Key to Knowing Past, Secretary-General Says
There can be no atonement if there is no repair, the keynote speaker during the General Assembly’s annual event commemorating the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade said today, as many speakers joined the growing calls for reparations to the descendants of human beings bought and sold as chattel for generations.
The meeting to mark the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade — observed annually on 25 March — also saw the adoption of a draft resolution declaring 12 May as the annual International Day of Plant Health as well as two draft decisions on the accreditation processes for upcoming conferences and summits, and a text calling for elevating pandemic prevention, preparedness and response “to the highest level of political leadership”.
Keynote speaker Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist at The New York Times Magazine and creator of the 1619 Project, opened the meeting by describing herself as the great-great granddaughter of men and women born into slavery in the United States. She said some 15 million people were transported in the hulls of barbaric ships during the transatlantic slave trade, which transformed the global economy. She added that after its abolition in the United States, slavery was reborn as a system of apartheid benignly known as “Jim Crow laws”. She went on to emphasize the importance of Black people’s resistance, while pointing out that the legacy of slavery still exists in poverty, violence and incarceration affecting the Black community. “It is long past time” to make reparations to the descendants of enslaved people, she stressed.
Secretary-General António Guterres noted that the world remembers the transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity and an unspeakable human rights violation. Calling the International Day a time of learning, he said that behind the facts and figures of the slave trade are millions of human stories, emphasizing that understanding them is crucial to understanding the past. He went on to describe racism as slavery’s most pernicious cause and most persistent legacy, saying it continues to stain the present as the justifications used for the slave trade became instrumental in shaping modern conceptions of race. Today, they even find new resonance in online echo chambers of hate, he added.
Assembly President Abdulla Shahid (Maldives) said slavery was intended to strip its victims of their names, individuality and legacies. By documenting, sharing and reflecting on their stories, “we prevent them from fading into obscurity and reaffirm their individual human worth”, he added. Noting the collective trauma endured by successive generations, he agreed that the consequences of slavery — including the racist attitudes it facilitated — have also endured. People of African descent continue to experience multiple and aggravated forms of discrimination that often intersect with and are amplified by other forms of prejudice, he said.
Lesotho’s representative, speaking for the African Group, stressed the need for all countries to adopt laws against racial discrimination as well as racist doctrines and practices. Expressing alarm over manifestations of discrimination in today’s purportedly civilized world — including those based on ideas of racial superiority, hatred and apartheid — he noted that students of African descent are currently facing discrimination and racism as they seek to flee the conflict in Ukraine for safe havens in neighbouring States.
Cuba’s representative said today’s commemoration is particular important in light of the racism and xenophobia that continue to flourish in the world’s most developed societies. Noting his country’s deep historical ties to Africa, he said the international community must give compensation and reparations to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, as developed countries profited immensely from it and are responsible for the losses it caused. Even today, the rich are able to profit off the backs of the poor majority, he stressed, pointing out that most of the developing world has yet to begin vaccinating its population against COVID‑19 while developed countries administer more and more “booster” shots.
The Assembly also took up its annual draft resolution on global health and foreign policy, the 2022 version titled “Elevating pandemic prevention, preparedness and response to the highest level of political leadership”.
Norway’s representative introduced that text, saying the coronavirus pandemic revealed weaknesses and overwhelming inequities in today’s world. Among other things, the resolution calls on countries to strengthen pandemic prevention and build resilient health-care systems, she said, while expressing support for discussions leading to a global convention on pandemic preparedness and response under the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Assembly adopted that resolution without a vote, after delegates debated its contents and weighed the efficacy of the ongoing global response to COVID‑19.
Brunei Darussalam’s representative said that if global health had indeed been fully integrated into foreign policy before the COVID‑19 pandemic, “the world might have been better prepared to face the crisis, with stronger and more resilient health systems”. That disconnect was on full display during the pandemic and in its aftermath, he added, noting that many nations unilaterally closed their borders, banned exports of critical medical supplies such as face masks, personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators, “played the blame game”, and spread misinformation.
Australia’s representative, also speaking on behalf of Canada and New Zealand, said the cost of preventing future health crises is low compared to the cost of responding to them. Australia is committed to using the lessons learned from COVID‑19 to build a more agile and responsive global health system with WHO at its core, she added, emphasizing that a new global instrument on pandemic preparedness is a critical component of that approach.
The representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, citing the pandemic’s detrimental impact on gender equality and women’s empowerment, called for urgent counter-measures. She went on to note that her delegation would have preferred that the draft resolution contain an explicit reference to sexual and reproductive health care as an integral part of public health.
In other business, the Assembly adopted, without a vote, a draft resolution titled “International Day of Plant Health” (document A/76/L.42), which designated 12 May as the date for that annual observance. Introducing the text was the representative of Zambia.
Members also adopted two draft decisions, respectively titled: “Accreditation and participation of an intergovernmental organization in the 2022 United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” (document A/76/L.44); and “Accreditation and participation of an intergovernmental organization in the international meeting entitled ‘Stockholm+50: a healthy planet for the prosperity of all — our responsibility, our opportunity’” (document A/76/L.45).
Other speakers on the International Day of Remembrance were representatives of Nauru (for the Asia-Pacific States Group), Mexico (for the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States), Belgium (for the Western European and Other States Group), United States (for the host country), Barbados (for the Caribbean Community), Haiti, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and the Russian Federation.
Speaking on global health and foreign policy were representatives of the Philippines (for the Group of Friends in Support of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Health Care Facilities), Thailand (for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Malaysia, China, Cuba, Russian Federation, Egypt, India, United Kingdom, Japan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Chile.
A representative of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See also participated in that discussion.
The Assembly will reconvene in plenary at 10 a.m. on Friday, 1 April, to take up “Prevention of armed conflict”.