Remembering the Legacy of Slavery at the United Nations

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


March 25th is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The United Nations adopted a resolution in 2007 to make this day a commemoration of those who suffered during the international slave trade. This day sheds light on the dangers of racism and prejudice by reconciling with this history and understanding how this infamous legacy still affects our world today. 2020 is also the halfway point of the UN Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), an era dedicated to focusing special attention on the human rights of African descendants around the world, a decade to seek out justice, recognition and time to create meaningful development initiatives in support of this community.


During a special tour and dialogue at the United Nations Headquarters at the end of Black History Month, a representative from the UN Department of Global Communications, Hadar Fischer, shared that the UN is dedicated to confronting the legacy of slavery and learning from this atrocity in order to ensure that a tragedy of this nature never happens again. Art and education are being used at the UN to inform the public and bring attention to the slave trade and its long standing social, economic, political and cultural ramifications around the world.


One noteworthy example is the Ark of Return memorial outside the UN headquarters where visitors can pass through a triangular ark and experience three elements of the memorial to victims of the slave trade: “acknowledge the tragedy”, “consider the legacy” and “lest we forget.” Created by Haitian-American architect, Rodney Leon, the Ark of Return is a reference to the Door of No Return where millions of Africans were forced to leave their homes with no promise of return. The Ark of Return is an invitation for those of the African diaspora to return to their homeland and for all people to acknowledge the brutality of international slavery in order to heal, reconcile and move forward with a deeper understanding of this history.


Another example at the UN is the exhibit titled, “Us and Them: From Prejudice to Racism" that is being showcased in the UN lobby currently. It illustrates the origins of racism and informs visitors that race is a social construct, created and used throughout history as justification for control, discrimination and persecution of particular groups. By understanding race in this way, this exhibit prompts visitors to think more deeply about systems of oppression that exist in today that originated from the annals of slavery.


Other art pieces in the United Nations, such as Norman Rockwell’s “Golden Rule” mural, highlight the importance of acknowledging a collective humanity where everyone is respected and lives by the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This mural reflects a diversity of race, religion and ethnicity, all standing together in unity and mutual understanding, an example and call to action for the global community. This artwork is also one of the first images of a “courageous young Black girl” and an homage to Rudy Bridges, the first African American student to integrate schools in the American south. In addition to educating the public about slavery and its legacy throughout the world, the UN is also invested in sharing stories and highlighting important African diasporic leaders who played an integral role in shaping civil rights, global peacemaking and the work of the United Nations.


During a discussion with UN experts on Transatlantic slavery, Brenden Varma from the United Nations General Assembly team, shared insight on the ways in which the international community is actively working to reconcile the history of slavery and combat modern day racism. Slavery was not a regional, confined atrocity; it impacted the entire world and the implications of racism extend beyond the Black and White community: all races and ethnicities are impacted by this heritage of prejudice through various ways and therefore we must all take action to end all forms of discrimination in our societies. The United Nations is working to combat this issue in the following ways:


·       UN Strategy and Plan of Action Against Hate Speech

·       Working Group on People of African Descent

·       Special Rapporteur on Racism

·       UN Resolution on Ending All Forms of Racism

·       World Conference on Racism

·       UNESCO Master Class Against Racism

·       International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities (ICCAR-UNESCO)


With the rise of prejudice and racism, hatred and xenophobia in our world, taking time to reflect on the brutality of slavery and its painful, divisive impact, is an opportunity to learn from history’s past wrongs. While international institutions like the United Nations set a precedent of how to combat these issues, civil society plays an integral role in holding governments, political leaders and businesses accountable, while vocalizing the needs of communities. It is important that we continue to stand for justice, not only for ourselves, but for all people.