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At a glance: United States of America

UN panel explores the legacy of the slave trade on the 200th anniversary of abolition

© UN Photo/Brown
Panel discussion at UN headquarters on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

By Anwulika Okafor

NEW YORK, New York, 27 March 2007 – Communities torn apart, millions of lives lost and bonded, and generations of Africans stripped of their native heritage – this is the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, which accounted for one of the longest and widest-ranging human tragedies in history.

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade yesterday, a panel of distinguished guests came together at the United Nations to discuss lessons for our own time.

The discussion was organized by the Caucus of Caribbean Community Ambassadors and the UN Department of Public Information, and moderated by noted New York journalist and television personality Gil Noble. The panel led the audience through a history lesson on the events that culminated in the final abolition of slavery – a process that began with the 1807 act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade.

Even though the act did not in itself end slavery, lawyer and author Lincoln Crawford stressed the importance of commemorating the day. “If you deny history, you deny people an essential part of their own progress,” said Mr. Crawford, who is also a member of the UK Deputy Prime Minister’s National Commission on Slavery.

‘What could anybody have done?’

Throughout the discussion, panellists made reference to the resilience of the human spirit of those who were enslaved.

© UNICEF/HQ05-1959/LeMoyne
Once forced to work as an unpaid domestic labourer, this young girl was rescued by a priest in her area and is pictured here recovering at a centre for abused and vulnerable children.

Approximately 12 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic over a span of some 400 years and made to enter into slavery, and an estimated one in three of those who made the Middle Passage died en route from abuse and disease, the speakers noted. These staggering numbers highlight the human toll of the slave trade.

Yet many enslaved people still managed to continue fighting for their freedom, most famously in the case of Haiti, which in 1804 became the first independent black republic and the only nation ever to arise from a successful slave rebellion.

More than a history lesson

But yesterday’s discussion was more than a history lesson. It was also a call to action to help the many people worldwide who are trapped in contemporary forms of slavery – from human trafficking and forced prostitution to forced labour and child recruitment into armed forces.

“What did anyone do to stop this? What could anybody have done?” asked Dr. Nana Opuku Agyeman, a lecturer at the Cape Coast University in Ghana. For Dr. Agyeman, one of the most important ways to end such atrocities is to speak up against them.

It is this very concept that drives the work of UNICEF and its many partners in drawing attention to the plight of some 300,000 children currently being used in armed conflict; an estimated 700,000 men, women and children trafficked across borders into slavery annually; and 5.7 million children who are victims of forced and bonded labour.

Speakers on yesterday’s panel urged organizations, governments and individuals around the world to continue working to right these wrongs, building upon the lessons of those who helped abolish the slave trade two centuries ago.



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