Every year, the United Nations commemorates the history of slavery with a day of discussions and cultural events,. The annual event, entitled “The International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade” takes place on March 25th, a date designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.
This year’s event coincided with the beginning of The International Decade for People of African Descent. The decade long commemoration will serve to highlight the contributions made by the people who trace their roots to Africa as well as ensure their human rights are protected. To mark the beginning of this occasion, the annual commemoration served to unveil “The Ark of Return”, or The Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.. The monument was designed by Rodney Leon, a Haitian American architect who previously designed the African Burial Ground National Monument, located near City Hall in lower Manhattan. The process to bring this monument to life was led by His Excellency, Courtenay Rattray, Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations and Chair of the Permanent Memorial Committee.
It is estimated that between 15 and 15 million men, women and children were victims of the slave trade that took place in the 16th to 19th centuries and was basically part of a triangular system that brought these people from Africa to the Americas in order to ensure that the needs of Europeans were satisfied. Although the practice of slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, that was not the end of the terrible legacy of slavery as Americans are still dealing with the issues of slavery to this day.
The United Nations has conducted a comprehensive series of events every year to mark this commemoration. These events have included the screening of movies related to the history and experience of slavery such as “Belle”, “Tula” and most recently “12 Years a Slave.” They have also scheduled workshop discussions and cultural presentations regarding the contemporary issues related to slavery including early / forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced labor.
During the ceremony, that took place on Wednesday, speakers expressed the need for the world to remember the terrible effects of the slave trade on its victims and the legacy that still haunts the world today. UN Secretary- General Ban Ki–moon said: “[the memorial] recognizes the collective tragedy that befell millions of people and it will ensure that we will never forget.” In the vision of the Secretary General, “The Ark of Return” will serve as a “place to pause and reflect; a call to action.”
Among the guests was Portia Simpson-Miller, the Honorable Prime Minister of Jamaica. Her nation suffered greatly during the slave trade and she stated clearly that that the path from slavery was anything but smooth: “Freedom came after a long journey,” she stated in her address, “It was not gifted to us.”
One of the images often recalled is the “Door of the no Return”. The door was an actual exit from a building that held slaves before their transfer to the ships that would bring them to the Americas. The view of that door was the last glimpse many victims had of their home continent. The building called The House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) is a museum and memorial to the slave trade. It is located on Gorée Island, coast of Dakar, Senegal.
The monument has many elements that recall the slave trade; clearly its triangular shape reminds the viewer of the nature of the slave trade. Its overall design resembles the lines of a ship, recalling the horrible journey that brought the ancestors to the Americas. The inside has images that educate and inform the visitor – a map of the Diaspora, the diagram of the hold of a slave ship and the figure of an ancestor. There are three main themes that complete the message of the memorial: “Acknowledge the Tragedy”, “Consider the Legacy” and “Lest We Forget.”
The memorial, placed prominently on the plaza next to the entrance of General Assembly Building will be the most visible reminder that the issue of slavery still exists in some form throughout the world today. Thus, it will serve to keep the current issues related to slavery on the minds of everyone that visits the United Nations. “[The memorial] will serve as a reminder, for generations to come, of mankind’s past failures in ensuring that the basic human rights and freedoms for all are safeguarded and protected, and why we should never allow this scourge to have residence in our society,” concluded Arnold J. Nicholson, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Jamaica.
The Ark of Return or the Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is located on the plaza of United Nations Headquarters and is available for viewing anytime the UN is open to the general public. For information about public access to the headquarters building please visit the following website: visit.un.org/.