Fri | Jan 21, 2022

‘Racist lie’ must end- UN chief

Published:Sunday | March 28, 2021 | 3:06 PMCMC
Secretary- General of the United Nations António Guterres

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that the “racist lie” that perpetuated slavery and the slave trade must end. 

Speaking on the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Guterres said that although the transatlantic slave trade ended more than two centuries ago, “the ideas of white supremacy that underpinned it remain alive.”

“We must end the legacy of this racist lie”, said Guterres during a commemorative meeting of the UN General Assembly that honoured the memory of the millions of people of African descent who suffered under the brutal system of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.  

While recalling the resilience of those who endured the “brutal yoke” of slavery, he recognised the trade as creating and sustaining “a global system of exploitation that existed for more than 400 years."  

The UN chief underscored the need to address the “pernicious and persistent consequences” of slavery and called for renewed commitments to “a world where all can live in peace with dignity and opportunity." 

Guterres also acknowledged the “immense contributions” that the enslaved have brought to culture, education and economies. 

“We honour the memory of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade by educating about its history and acknowledging its impact on our world today”, he said, urging everyone to “tackle racism, injustice and inequality” and build inclusive communities and economies. 

Stripped of their dignity

UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkır painted a picture of enslaved people reduced to chattels and stripped of their freedom, dignity, and identity, summing up that “violence replaced autonomy." 

“Not only do the descendants of the 15 million victims of the transatlantic slave trade have to grapple with the pain and grief of their ancestors, but every day they navigate a world built by them, but not for them," he said.  

“And as they suffered, working stolen lands and raising the children of their abusers, free men and women benefited from the Industrial Revolution enabled by their slave labour,” he added, attesting to the “complicity of those who profited, but did not stand up for the oppressed.”  

As of 2016, the UN said over 40.3 million people were estimated to be enslaved in modern forms, 71 per cent of whom are women and girls.  

“Shockingly, children account for one in four of those enslaved today”, Bozkır said.  

He said that widespread job losses, rising poverty, regular migration pathway closures and reduced scrutiny of labour standards that increase vulnerability sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic “not only threaten setbacks aimed at ending modern slavery, but also pushes more people towards jobs where they are simply exploited. 

“When society does not tackle the inhumane treatment of our fellow human beings, every individual is complicit”, Bozkır said, reminding that the UN Charter obliges everyone to uphold the rights of the people.  

“We need to be vigilant”, the Assembly president stressed, saying that when those around us look away, and turn their backs on injustice, “each of us has a responsibility to step in.”  

In speaking out against “gas lighting”, Bozkır said “we should not shy away from honest discussions over reparatory justice,” while urging everyone to continue working to achieve equality and justice for all. 

“I repeat what I expressed last week, and let us keep repeating it until it is understood and internalised by all: Black. Lives Matter.”, Bozkir said.  

In an online event headlined “Still We Rise”, the head of UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Natalia Kanem, stressed that ending racism, the legacy of enslavement, is “a global imperative for justice”.  

Referring to the events of 2020, she said that there is a lot of work to do.

“Today and every day, let us commit to focused, concerted and accelerated action to end racism and discrimination”, said Kanem. 

The UN said the commemoration to stand up to end slavery’s legacy of racism also featured poetry and music, including from hip-hop artist Webster, Peter Gabriel, Yo-Yo Ma and Angélique Kidjo. 

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