Launch of International Year for the Commemoration of the Struggle Against Slavery and its AbolitionOn January 10, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura will officially launch the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition in Cape Coast (Ghana), one of the slave trade’s most active centres and today a World Heritage site. The year, devoted to an unprecedented tragedy that was recognized as a “crime against humanity” at the Durban World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (2001), should help humanity accomplish its duty of remembrance and fight all forms of slavery and racism in the world.
Proclaimed International Year for the Commemoration of the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition by the General Assembly of the United Nations, 2004 also marks the bicentenary of the first independent black state, Haiti, a symbol of the slaves' resistance (www.unesco.org/culture/unysa)
“By institutionalizing memory, resisting the onset of oblivion, recalling the memory of a tragedy that for long years remained hidden or unrecognized, and by assigning it its proper place in the human conscience, we respond to our duty to remember,” said the Director-General of UNESCO in his message1 for the International Year for the Commemoration of the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition.
In the framework of the Year, for which UNESCO is the lead agency, the Organization is preparing a series of activities in cooperation with Member States, National Commissions, governmental and non-governmental organizations, UNESCO Clubs, the international scientific community, Nobel Prize laureates, and UNESCO’s Artists for Peace and Goodwill Ambassadors. Their goal will be to deepen our knowledge of slavery and the slave trade worldwide by highlighting the interactions they generated and the philosophical, political and legal implications of the process that led to the abolition of slavery. The promotion of historical sites connected to the slave trade and the celebration of events and personalities linked to slavery and its abolition are also being organized.
UNESCO’s activities during 2004 will focus on three areas: Scientific Research, Living Memory, and Encounters and Dialogue. They include:
- scientific meetings on the history of slavery, its impact on the populations affected by the trade, the slave trade’s consequences for cultural diversity and the transfer of knowledge, and contemporary slavery and racism. On March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, UNESCO will launch a project called “International Coalition of Cities United Against Racism”, which will include a series of regional seminars and conferences to define a 10-point action plan to fight racism on the municipal level
- research studies focusing on the preservation of documents and the digitization of archive collections, as well as on the establishment of databases. On the occasion of the 15th International Archives Conference (Vienna, Austria, August 23-29), an international conference on the archives of the slave trade will take place as part of the “Archives of the Slave Trade” project ((webworld.unesco.org/slave_quest/en/).
- creation of slavery and slave trade museums and research centres, such as the one planned for the island of Gorée (Senegal), the place from which millions of African slaves left for the Americas and today a World Heritage site, and the restoration of landmarks like Brazil House in Accra and Bois Caïman in Haiti, with the aim of setting up tourist itineraries of remembrance.
- exhibitions, including “The Slave Route: Africa's Connections With Jamaica” (February 27, UNESCO, Paris); “The Slave Trade and Abolitions” (travelling exhibition organized in cooperation with New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture that is scheduled to be presented at the Headquarters of the United Nations during the 59th session of the General Assembly in late 2004); works by French sculptor Gérard Voisin that evoke intercultural dialogue (September, Nantes, France).
- concerts, including a July performance in Paris featuring Gilberto Gil with Cesaria Evora and Manu Dibango (pending confirmation), proceeds from which fund UNESCO projects for the rehabilitation of Slave Route sites.
- celebrations of leaders of the fight against slavery, such as Toussaint Louverture, Victor Schoelcher, Moreau de Saint-Mery and Vicente Guerrero. Moreover, this year UNESCO will create a medal and award to commemorate Toussaint Louverture and the fight against racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.
- meetings, such as the Third Congress of African, American and Caribbean Writers, whose scheduled theme is “From the Abolition of Slavery to the Fight Against Colonialism and the Place of Blacks in the Age of Globalisation” (date and place to be decided) and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which brings craftspeople, musicians, cooks and traditional storytellers together in Washington, D.C. each summer; this year (June 23 to July 4), the festival is joining forces with UNESCO to honour “Haiti: Freedom and Creativity”.
UNESCO is also sponsoring the “Forgotten Slaves" project of the Groupe de Recherche en Archéologie Navale (France). The recent discovery of the wreck of the Utile, a slave ship of the Compagnie Française des Indes Orientales (French East India Company) that sank off the coast of Tromelin Island (Indian Ocean) in 1761, is at the root of this project, which will be presented at UNESCO in February 2004.
In his message, the Director-General of UNESCO insists that the slave trade, “this major episode in the history of humanity, whose consequences are permanently imprinted in the world’s geography and economy, should take its full place in the school textbooks and curricula of every country in the world.”
In 1994, UNESCO launched “The Slave Route” to promote and popularize knowledge about the slave trade – which claimed countless lives from the 16th to 19th century and, in the words of poet Aimé Césaire (Martinique), “objectified human beings” - its consequences and the interactions it gave rise to among the peoples of Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean (www.unesco.org/culture/slaveroute). The project's educational component, entitled “Breaking the Silence”, which brings together approximately 100 schools on the three continents concerned, aims to inscribe this tragic page of the history of humanity in school programmes worldwide. Schools in the network have already started testing new textbooks, anthologies of period documents, in the form of a trilogy compiled by a committee of researchers. The first two volumes, Voices of Slaves and Voyages of Slaves, are available in the schools. The third, Visions of Slaves, will come out in 2004. An International Youth Forum will be held next August, after which the same students will launch a worldwide drive to mobilize schools in the fight against racism (see www.unesco.org/education/asp and www.antislavery.org/breakingthesilence).
“Ensuring universal awareness of the tragedy of the slave trade and slavery is thus an essential task which has relevance not only for the past but also for the present and the future,” says Mr Matsuura in his message, adding that the International Year for the Commemoration of the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition should make it possible “to establish an appropriate framework for the promotion of a fair dialogue between peoples with due regard for the universality of human rights and to confirm our commitment to combat all contemporary forms of slavery and racism.”
Slavery was first abolished in Saint Domingue (1793)2 and last in Cuba (1886) and Brazil (1888), and is banned by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. Nevertheless, it still exists in various forms, including bonded labour for debt, forced labour of adults and children, sexual exploitation of children, trafficking and displacement of human beings and forced marriage.
The NGO Anti-Slavery says at least 20 million people are held in bonded labour around the world, while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the estimated number of people trafficked for bonded or forced labour at 700,000 a year. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has published estimates putting the number of child labourers at 245 million in 2002. The ILO further says that 1.2 million children fall victim to traffickers every year. It has denounced the trade in children in central and western Africa reporting that, “10,000 to 15,000 Malian children work on plantations in Côte d’Ivoire - many of them victims of trafficking. Nigeria reports that in 1996, some 4,000 children were trafficked from Cross River State to various parts within and outside the country. Benin registered over 3,000 trafficked children between 1995 and 1999.” (Labour, the ILO magazine, no. 39, June 2001).
According to the Director-General of UNESCO, one of the goals of the International Year For the Commemoration of the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition is “knowing and recognizing the major imprint of African cultures on the formation of the world’s cultures and civilizations”. The millions of African slaves uprooted from their homes, deported to the Americas and sold, brought with them not only their spiritual and cultural values, but also traditional know-how, as shown in a series of works published by UNESCO, among them the General History of Africa, Tradition orale et archives de la traite négrière (2001), Déraison, esclavage et droit: les fondements idéologiques et juridiques de la traite négrière et de l’esclavage (2002), Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot : du genre humain au bois d’ébène, les abolitions de l’esclavage (2002), Les Sources orales de la traite négrière en Guinée et en Sénégambie (2003), Tradition orale liée à la traite négrière et à l’esclavage en Afrique centrale (2003) and Lieux de mémoire de l’esclavage et de la traite négrière (Angola - Cap Vert - Guinée Bissau - Sao Tome et Principe). In 2004, UNESCO will publish “The Origins of Iron Metallurgy in Africa - New light on its antiquity: West and Central Africa” within the framework of another project, “The Iron Roads in Africa”, launched in 1995 to highlight Africa's contribution to the principles of tolerance, mutual understanding and dialogue (see www.unesco.org/publishing).
To trace the slave trade itineraries, the Slave Route project and the World Tourism Organization (WTO) in 1995 launched the Slave Route cultural tourism programme for Africa, aimed at identifying, rehabilitating, restoring and promoting sites, buildings and places of remembrance of the slave trade. This economic, historical and ethical approach to tourism reflects the duty of remembrance (www.unesco.org/culture/dialogue/slave/html_fr/tourism.shtml).
About ten significant sites on the Slave Route have already been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: the island of Gorée in Senegal (http://webworld.unesco.org/goree/); the forts and castles of Volga and Accra in Ghana; Mozambique Island; the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara in Tanzania; the royal palaces of Abomey in Benin; the Sans-souci citadel in Haiti; and several historic centres and towns in Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Panama. Though not directly connected to the slave trade, Robben Island in South Africa remains the most powerful symbol of one of its lasting consequences: the spread of a racist mentality, systematized by the apartheid regime.
It is at one such place of remembrance, Cape Coast Fort, 170 kilometres from Accra, the capital of Ghana, that Mr Matsuura will launch the International Year for the Commemoration of the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition on January 10, in the presence of Isaac Adumadzie, Regional Minister for the Central Region (Cape Coast), and the Ministers of Culture from Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. The tradition ceremony that will open proceedings will be placed under the auspices of the “Osabarima” Nana Kwesi Atta II, President of the Gua Traditional Council. Another 20 traditional Africain chiefs will also attend the ceremony. This is the first time the tradition chiefs have been associated with an activity undertaken by the international community concerning the commemoration of the slave trade.
During his visit to Accra, on January 9, Mr Matsuura will also inaugurate the Conference of Education Ministers of the Member States of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
1. The message of UNESCO’s Director-General is available at the following address: www.unesco.org/dg
2. The uprising in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), which began on the night of August 22 to 23, 1791, played a decisive role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. August 23 is celebrated each year as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.