UN News Agency report on the debate in the 61st General Assembly on the Bicentennial Commemoration of the Abolition of the Slave Trade
At the initiative of CARICOM (the Caribbean Community), the UN General Assembly at its 61st session adopted the resolution to Commemorate the Bicentenary Abolition of the Slave Trade. 2007 will mark 200 years since the UK Parliament passed the 1807 Bill to abolish the slave trade in the former British Empire. Throughout 2007 a number of initiatives and activities will be organized in various Commonwealth States whose history is related to this event in order to raise awareness on the history of the slave trade, its effects, and the existence of contemporary forms of slavery.
Date 27 Nov 2007 Document
A 61 L 28 E.pdf
28 November 2006 General Assembly
Department of Public Information * News and Media Division * New York Sixty-first General Assembly Plenary
58th & 59th Meetings (AM & PM)
Assembly to Observe 26 March 2007 in Commemoration of Two-Hundredth Anniversary of Abolition of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, in Historic Decision
OPENING THE DEBATE on setting aside a day to commemorate the anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines introduced the resolution. On behalf of the Caribbean Community, she said that, by commemorating the dismantling of the institution of slavery, the Assembly would have the opportunity to do the right thing and bring a measure of closure to a dark past that some would rather forget.
She said that it still jolted the conscience to remember that, for nearly 500 years, upon arrival in the Americas, Africans who survived the horrific trans-Atlantic journey were branded with hot irons to imprint the names of their new owners and forced into degrading slave labour. It had taken the world almost 200 years to acknowledge slavery as a crime against humanity.
To anyone who asked "Why bother to re-hash an event that happened so long ago?," the Caribbean Community would say that to the decedents of those who lived and died during that time, 200 years was not so long ago. "It is our solemn obligation to ensure that their memories are honours and that their suffering is never forgotten," she declared.
By the text of the resolution, the Assembly "recognized that the slave trade and slavery are among the worst violations of human rights in the history of humanity, bearing in mind particularly their scale and duration". It acknowledged that the institution of slavery was at the heart of "profound social and economic inequality, hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice, which continue to affect people of African descent today."
The resolution also recalled key sections of the Durban Declaration, adopted at the close of the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, emphasizing, in particular, the importance of the "provision of effective remedies, recourse, redress, and compensatory and other measures at the national, regional and international levels", aimed at countering the continued impact of slavery and the slave trade.
Introduction of Draft
Introducing the draft resolution on commemoration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), MARGARET HUGHES FERRARI (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), said the text (document A/61/L.28) would set aside 26 March 2007 (instead of 25 March, which fell on the weekend) for the international community to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the day the Imperial British Parliament signed the Act, which abolished the slave trade throughout the British empire. That Act helped chart the course for abolition worldwide, and CARICOM acknowledged and remembered with gratitude those who had led the struggle to end the institution of slavery and the slave trade.
She said that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade represented one of humanity's lowest points, and resulted in the forced removal, over a period of some five hundred years, of nearly eighteen million people, from Africa to the "New World" of the Americas, including the United States and the Caribbean, as well as Brazil and the Spanish Empire. Those people were enslaved and forced to work mostly on plantations, enriching the European empires of the day. Apart from the misery and suffering of the captured men, women and children, the nefarious institution turned brother against brother, destroying families and whole communities. It also caused untold damage to the countries of West Africa, she added.
The resolution, therefore, would have the Assembly express deep concern that it had taken nearly two hundred years to acknowledge slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, as well as express the view that those institutions should have always been acknowledged as such. And, since the massive relocation of African humanity had wrought permanent damage to "our ancestors and decedents on every continent bordering the Atlantic ocean," stifling African creativity and gutting production capacities, and indeed becoming the genesis of a dependent relationship with Europe -- the unfortunate affects of which lingered until this day -- the draft would have the Assembly acknowledge that the institution of slavery was at the heart of "profound social and economic inequality, hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice, which continue to affect people of African descent today."
By commemorating the end of the transatlantic slave trade, the Assembly would have the opportunity to do the right thing and bring a measure of closure to a dark past that some would rather forget. "But we of the Caribbean need to remember, in order to know from whence we came," she concluded, adding, "we need to make sure that our children know of the dark deeds perpetrated in the name of commerce and profit We must never forget."
KAIRE MBUENDE (Namibia), speaking on behalf of the African Group, said that the slave trade was a horrific and brutal chapter in Africa's history, which had robbed the continent of millions of able-bodied citizens. Forced to leave their motherlands, many of them had perished during the long journey, or had suffered inhumane treatment at the hands of their masters and brutal system.
He said that slavery was appropriately called a crime against humanity. Commemorating the abolition of the slave trade on 26 March served as a reminder to the international community of the past and dedicated the world to a more humane future. Slavery should never be repeated again in any form, he added.
The year 1807 had seen the abolition of the slave trade, he said. That had also marked the triumph of the human spirit and the will for freedom. Reiterating support for draft resolution "L. 28", he paid tribute to all those from Africa and of African origin in the Caribbean and the Americas.
GEORGE TALBOT (Guyana), speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, said that his delegation unreservedly condemned slavery and servitude in all its forms and manifestations and urged the international community to increase its vigilance and take all necessary measures to eliminate such practices.
The Rio Group supported the initiative of CARICOM to commemorate the two-hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of the transatlantic Slave Trade on 26 March 2007, he said. That date represented a significant milestone, while also giving pause to honour the memory of slaves, who, although subjected to the most barbaric and inhumane conditions, never lost the will to be free and live in dignity.
HEIDI SCHRODERUS-FOX (Finland) on behalf of the European Union said that her delegation had been pleased to join consensus on the text and would strongly reiterate the position outlined in the Durban Declaration that "slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity, not only because of their abhorrent barbarism, but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially because of their negation of the essence of the victims " The European Union, as others, wanted to consider the complex historical, social and legal issues related to slavery, in a full and transparent manner.
However, she said, her delegation remained convinced that those issues were best addressed within the framework of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. As the Union stated at the time of the 2001 World Conference against Racism, nothing in the Declaration or action plan could affect the general legal principle, which precluded the retrospective application of international law in matters of State responsibility. Likewise, those documents could not impose obligations, liability, or a right to compensation, on anyone. That remained true of the resolution just approved.
RAYMOND O. WOLFE (Jamaica) said that the historic draft resolution would have the Assembly recognize that both the slave trade and slavery were among the worst violations of human rights in human history, bearing in mind their scale and duration. The Durban Declaration, the outcome of the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, referred to slavery and the slave trade as "appalling tragedies especially in their negation of the essence of the victims" and not only declared slavery a crime against humanity, but stated that it should have always been considered as such.
He said it was critical, therefore, that during today's solemn debate on the matter, that the Assembly recognize that the horrific "Middle Passage" -- the very essence of the transatlantic Stave trade -- had been responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans, who perished as a result of torture, malnutrition, disease, and resistance. Historians had estimated that, by the time the institution of slavery was dismantled -- hundreds of years after it began -- for every African that arrived on a plantation in the Americas, twice as many Africans died during the "Middle Passage".
Jamaica and other CARICOM countries would be fully involved in activities to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the end of slavery. Beyond symbolic gestures, all should emphasize that the legacy of slavery and the slave trade was not just important to Africa and the Caribbean. Their consequences should rightly stir the conscience of the international community, especially taking into account slavery's continued political, social and economic impacts.
She said that the practice of slavery still existed in one form or another. There was no rest until everyone was free and no one was a victim of trafficking, but could enjoy all rights in full, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 2001 World Conference against Racism was to be commended for declaring slavery and the slave trade a crime against humanity, but the annual draft resolution on global efforts to totally eliminate racism and related phenomena had again failed to come before the Assembly for a vote. What message was that sending to the millions of victims of rights abuses looking to the United Nations for hope? Concern for language must not overshadow that important issue.
LEO MERORES (Haiti), aligning himself with the statement made by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on behalf of CARICOM, said that, though it had taken 200 years to recognize slavery as a crime, the stigma related to it persisted. Descendents of the those huddled masses had waited two centuries, and today, the General Assembly was ready to adopt the draft because an overwhelming voice of reason had been heard. The resolution represented a start of a new type of contract; one which would serve as a compass for the future.
Further, he said, the slave trade had been horrendous, and the cries of millions of wasted lives demanded justice. Slavery was an example of the most serious violation of human rights, and increased vigilance was required to ensure that it did not recur. In conclusion, he welcomed the adoption of "L. 28" and hoped for its consensus adoption. He reiterated that all men were born equal and remained so before the law.
NIRUPAM SEN (India) said he was speaking on behalf of his CARICOM friends to advocate his strongly-felt view that the resolution should receive the broadest possible support. Also commending the work of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on slavery, he called for the preservation of all personal accounts of the slavery experience to serve as the only reliable basis for an authentic version of history; slavery destroyed dignity and the only way to regain the lost dignity was to recollect the events and repair whatever had caused the damage.
ILEANA NUNEZ MORDOCHE (Cuba) said that the transatlantic slave trade was one of the most sordid chapters of modern history. Some 1.3 million Africans had arrived in Cuba, most of them from the sub-Saharan Africa. Several ethnic groups had subsequently given birth to the Cuban nationality, essentially a mix of Hispanic and African cultures.
Despite a tight blockade and slandering campaigns, Cuba would carry on its cooperation programmes with the African, Caribbean and other third-world nations, as part of a joint effort to reverse the consequences of slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism, she pledged.
RICHARD MILLER (United States) said his country was only 30 years old when the transatlantic slave trade was abolished. The United States had outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, but the fight to rid the country of the heinous practice would not end until the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict ever on American home soil. Those who died to abolish slavery in practice on the ground deserved recognition for their dedication to justice. As a multicultural society, the United States placed great importance on protecting the rights of all and fighting the ugly remnants of racist attitudes and actions. He supported the resolution wholeheartedly, but he could not support the language on reparations or compensation, even in a preambular paragraph. A more open and understanding posture on the part of sponsors would have been more in keeping with the spirit of the text.
NATHANIEL BARNES (Liberia) said that it was mind boggling that the world community had taken so long in grappling with the idea of commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, a calamity that had raped the African continent of valuable human resources and laid the bedrock for its continued underdevelopment and dependency.
As a nation that traced its birth from the aftermath of the indignity and cruelty, which characterized the slave trade, Liberia remained a vivid reminder of the indomitable spirit of Africans and those of African descent, he said. Adoption of the draft resolution before the Assembly was the least the world body could do in memory of the dead, as well as in support of those who continued to be affected by the consequences of slave trade.
EMYR JONES PARRY (United Kingdom), aligning himself with the European Union's statements, called the transatlantic slave trade one of the most inhumane enterprises in history. The 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act had provided the basis for the abolition of slavery within the Empire, 25 years later. Recalling the Act's two-hundredth anniversary on 26 March 2007, would mark that passage as a critical step for the United Kingdom into a more just, moral place. The British Government would commemorate that crucial turning point with activities throughout 2007. Welcoming the adoption of the resolution and the planned United Nations commemorative day, he looked forward to working with CARICOM members and others to prepare events that would reflect that day's importance.
He added that the two-hundredth anniversary held enormous importance for those countries whose people had suffered from the transatlantic slave trade. The bicentenary provided an opportunity to pay tribute to the moral conviction of those who had campaigned for slavery's abolition and to confront the fact that contemporary forms of slavery persisted today. Recalling the words of British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce in 1807 that "you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know", he urged States that had not yet done so to accede to the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.
NICOLAS CHIBAEFF (France) said he supported the resolution and the commemoration wholeheartedly. His own country was taking steps at the national level as part of the commemoration. A memorial would be set up in Nantes, which had been a centre of the transatlantic slave trade for a long time. In the spirit of the Durban Declaration, which had characterized slavery as a crime against humanity, on 10 May 2001, that day would be an annual day of commemoration in France and the principle of slavery as a crime against humanity would be mainstreamed, including in textbooks and school curriculum. It was in that spirit that France supported the resolution.
FRANK MAJOOR (Netherlands) said he also supported the resolution wholeheartedly, but the text, itself, ran into the same problem as the text had in Durban. The language raised serious legal issues with regard to State responsibility and the inapplicability of legal sanctions or imposition of reparations retroactively to a time when the actions in question were not illegal. Since Durban, however, a number of measures had been taken at a national level with regard to educating the public on the hideous character of the period in which slavery had been allowed to continue.
K. BHAGWAT-SINGH, Permanent Observer of the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization to the United Nations, said that his delegation was specifically concerned with related issues, such as human trafficking, child labour, bigotry, slavery of poverty, and the plight of the downtrodden and oppressed people in many member States. Hopefully, the General Assembly would broaden its scope to include those issues.
He said that the anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade could not be celebrated without keeping in mind those still suffering under the yoke of present-day slavery in its various forms. In fact, the memory of those who carried slavery's burden would be best honoured by working to erase it, in all its manifestations, he added.
Action on Draft
The Assembly then took up the draft on commemoration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade (document A/61/L.28).
The Secretariat read out a statement of programme budget implications, stating that the estimated requirements for the year 2007 as a result of adoption of the draft being adopted would amount to $303,900. No provisions had been made under the programme budget for the 2006-2007 biennium, but the Secretariat intended to accommodate the requirements with the Public Information appropriation. Any additional requirements would be reported in the context of the second performance report for the biennium.
The Assembly adopted the draft without a vote, as orally amended earlier in the meeting by the representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, on behalf of the Caribbean Community.
Statement after action as a co-sponsor of the draft, the representative of Canada repeated the position of her country already stated on previous occasions. Under international law, there was no remedy for actions that were not illegal at the time they occurred. Endorsement of the resolution should be viewed as her country's enthusiastic support for marking the end of a very repugnant period in human history. The support was further underscored by Canada's well-known special relationship with the CARICOM, she said.
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