The UN’s cultural organisation, UNESCO, has since 1998 observed 23 August as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The date was chosen to commemorate the 1791 San Domingo (Haiti) revolt, which marked the first decisive victory of slaves against their oppressors and led to the creation of the first black independent state.

The 2017 theme is: “Remember Slavery: Recognizing the Legacy and Contributions of People of African Descent.” It focuses on specific consequences of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, namely the ways in which enslaved Africans and their descendants influenced and continue to shape societies around the world, including in the areas of technology and culture. It also highlights the persistent spirit and innovation of the people in communities affected by the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The day as a whole is a tribute to every victim and their resistance against slavery and a reminder of the importance of teaching history. Nada Al-Nashif, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences told UN News“The legacy of the slave trade is a symbolic victory for human rights freedom; and the International Day acts as a reminder of the eternal effort to reaffirm human dignity and break down ignorance.”

She explained that many regions of the world consider it to be a day of common heritage that symbolizes “a call for freedom, for justice and for dialogue among people.” According to Ms. Al-Nashif, it is important to understand the limitation of interpretation, to change the silence and to act together to make resistance against slavery an inspirational force for future generations.

She underscored that its “call for truth” permeates UNESCO’s work in appealing for social justice, the reduction of inequality and the preservation of human dignity and human rights.

Read: Modern-day slavery: The exploitation of African migrant workers in the Middle East

In 1994 UNESCO launched the landmark Slave Route Project as a means to break the silence, better understand the historic causes, methods and global consequences of the tragedy. The project is led by the quote, ‘We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity’ from the Declaration of the World Conference against Racism (Durban, 2001, Paragraph 13).

Zanzibar: Memory of Slaves. Photo: Missy/Flickr

Since its introduction, UNESCO maintains that the project has had a significant impact at local, national, regional and international levels – and has helped to effect a change in attitudes by ‘de-racializing’ the tragedy which, de facto, concerns humanity as a whole.

The Slave Route Project has contributed substantially to fostering greater awareness of the ethical, political, socio-economic and cultural aspects of this chapter of history, “and even the official recognition of slavery as a crime against humanity by the United Nations,” according to Ms. Al-Nashif.

Ms. Al-Nashif noted that project also speaks to “remedy the general ignorance on the history of Africa by reconstructing it – freeing it from racial prejudice – and re-reading the history through purely African perspectives or more objective views of scientists or researchers.”

‘My song, “The Door of No Return”, is a song of pain and suffering, but also of transcendency and progress’
said Marcus Miller, spokeperson for The Slave Route project in the literature of the project.

Read: The Slave Route: 1994-2014- The road travelled

Newly-nominated UNESCO World Heritage sites

Ms. Al-Nashif told UN News about Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site in Brazil and Mbanza Kongo, the Vestiges of the Capital of the former Kingdom of Kongo in Angola, saying “both are recognized to be of universal value.” Ms. Al-Nashif said that Valongo, the former harbour area in Rio de Janeiro is “one of the most important wharfs in world history, because as many as 900,000 African men, women and children were held there before being sold in the Brazilian market and, for the two decades that it existed, was a hub for how the African diaspora came to the New World.”

The Cape Coast Castle a former slave holding facility, in the town of Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo Kalyan Neelamraju_Flickr_files

The Vestiges were also a principal slave trade route through which enslaved people were transported to the Americas and Caribbean. “The archaeological traces of the past speak to the many tangible and intangible heritage elements that still exist and have been honored now,” she stressed.

Slavery in contemporary Africa

Currently UN migration agency says selling of people is rife in Libya after it slid into violent chaos since the demise of Gaddafi. New testimony from the International Organization for Migration suggests that the trade in human beings has become so normalized that people are being traded in public. “The latest reports of ‘slave markets’ for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages [in Libya],” said Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s head of operation and emergencies. “The situation is dire. The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for all too many migrants.”

Read: Viral Video shows Somali and Ethiopian Migrants and Refugees being held and abused by Libyan gangs

More than 1% of the population of Democratic Republic of Congo was deemed by the Walk Free Foundation to be enslaved, a higher percentage than in most nations according to a study done in 2014. Populations that are vulnerable to slavery often reside in countries where government is not stable or discrimination is prevalent. Fiona David, executive director of global research for the foundation at the time, summarized the role of political instability in driving vulnerability, telling 24/7 Wall St., “In conflict situations, the rule of law breaks down. People no longer have access to the police or other services to protect them.” DRC’s statistics are as follows:Est. population in modern slavery: 762,900, Percentage of population in modern slavery: 1.13% (6th highest), Human Development Index Score: 0.338 (2nd worst) and GDP per capita 2013: $655 (3rd lowest).

Nigeria is another county that is on the Walk Free Foundations list with the following statistics: Est. population in modern slavery: 834,200, Percentage of population in modern slavery: 0.48% (52nd highest), Human Development Index Score: 0.504 (32nd worst) and GDP per capita 2013: $5,746 (51st lowest).

“Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature – opposition to it, is his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow,” Abraham Lincoln.