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Virtual Portal For A Permanent Memorial: UN To Honor Victims Of African Slave Trade

5 February 2011 5 February 2011 Tags: One Comment Print This Post Print This Post

UN delegates launch the website of the Permanent Memorial honoring historic victims of the African Slave Trade.  Photo: Dowoti Desir

For the first time in four years information about the Permanent Memorial at the United Nations in Honor of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade will be readily available to the public with the launch of a website: www.unslaverymemorial.org.

Under the stewardship of the Permanent Mission of Jamaica to the United Nations, members of CARICOM, and the African Union gathered the President of the General Assembly Joseph Deiss; the Undersecretary General Mr. Kiyo Akasaka; and members of the Permanent Memorial Committee to present the new website before the international community. Using the theme “Acknowledging the Tragedy; Considering the Legacy; Lest We Forget,” its three fold objectives are to raise public awareness of the work of the diplomatic facilitators around the permanent memorial; create an educational tool for understanding the magnitude of this heinous opus in human history; and most importantly raise funds for the memorial.

While the launch of a website, any website, is not important news, what is significant is what lies behind the virtual gesture. History, the very real history of enslaved Africans that continues to weigh upon African descendants for over 400 years especially as defined by the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the issue. The social movements the 1980’s and 1990’s that culminated in the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and other Forms of Intolerance in Durban South African; had among its various outcomes, the Durban Declaration & Program of Action (DDPA.) The DDPA made explicit the need for remedial measures to mitigate the impact of enslavement on the African person. Key to this discussion is the call for memorials and other commemorative steps to honor the victims of this crime against humanity. See DDPA Resolution 101.

The harsh reality of slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade has been chafing itself within the broader political discourse of the United Nations. Its stifled legacy now perhaps getting attention it deserves. Unless the global African descendant community takes an uncompromising stand, particularly during this dual year of third review of the Durban Declaration Programme & Plan of Action (Durban+10) and the UN International Year of People of African Decent (see: http://www.un.org) the launch of this promising website becomes yet one more piece of virtual clutter to sift through, and the efforts towards financing and commissioning a permanent memorial risks being an empty and expensive exercise to appease.

With the adoption of 17 December 2007 Resolution A/RES/62/122, the UN General Assembly welcomed the efforts taken by the Caribbean Community member States to erect a permanent memorial at the halls of the UN to acknowledge the tragedy in consideration of the legacy of slavery and the slave trade.

Slave Restraint Hardware Source: Library of Congress

That same year, CARICOM and the AU established mechanisms for meeting an international invitation to honor African descendants whose predecessors were the victims of various slave trades with a permanent memorial. It’s projected cost is $US 4.5 million. The genteel Ambassador Raymond Wolfe of the Permanent Mission of Jamaica to the UN is the force behind the Permanent Memorial leading this charge. Serving as Goodwill Ambassador is Russell Simmons. The role of such an appointment is to have individuals with high profiles use their fame to draw attention to critical issues. Sadly, lacking either vision or direction, Mr. Simmons could heighten his effectiveness as a Goodwill Ambassador if he would commit even just a few of his considerable resources towards developing a meaningful campaign for the permanent memorial. With the bare exception of The Huffington Post article – Twenty-Seven Million Slaves, focused more on contemporary human trafficking than the historic slave trade the media mogul’s instinct for capital has yielded little for his ward, the Permanent Memorial.

Ironically with an Advisory Committee consisting largely of American corporations and a representative or two from civil society, the U.S. government hosting the second largest African descendent population outside of Africa, has not pledged any funds towards the initiative.

In recent months, the Permanent Memorial’s fund raising has skidded to $889,000 donated voluntarily from some 45 UN member states. At the press conference, ceremonial cheques of $250,000; $100,000; and $25,000 contributions made by the representatives of India, Australia, and Finland respectively were presented. While laudable efforts, one fact remains unchanged: the Permanent Memorial is in need of more serious support from the international community and its institutional structures.

An international competition is expected to solicit proposals for the Permanent Memorial however with no dedicated staff in place with the necessary expertise to administer the project, it has been a challenge for Ambassador Wolfe to accelerate the pace of this project. With less than a $1 million raised in four years for a project exceeding $4 million in costs, if the current gait of roughly $220,000 is raised per year, it will take over two decades – 20 years to meet projected goals. The Permanent Memorial is scheduled for completion and installation by 2013.

Fraught with complexity, from a diplomatic perspective, the Permanent Memorial is not linked to the issue of reparations as prescribed by the DDPA. The two are however linked in the minds and hearts of civil society. A multi-tier approach that enables the memorial’s most committed stakeholders to advocate for and support the project must be sketched out in the coming months. Beyond much needed financial support and political jockeying are other issues evoked by the remarks delivered by Undersecretary General Akasaka who observed, the launching of the website will:

“… serve as a call to action against contemporary manifestation of slavery. The abolition of Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century did not eradicate the practice globally. Instead, it took on other forms, which persist to this day: serfdom, debt bondage and forced and bonded labour; trafficking in women and children, domestic slavery and forced prostitution, including of children, sexual slavery, forced marriage and the sale of wives; child labour and child servitude, among others.” He continued, “The reality obliges the international community to bring perpetrators to justice and to continue pursuing with vigour its efforts to uphold human rights and human dignity.”

Morocco's representative speaking on behalf of the AU. Photo: Dowoti Desir

We are reminded the Transatlantic Slave Trade is a crime against humanity, a point powerfully made in the DDPA. As with all such crimes, the issue of compensation warrants redress. While monetary reparations are difficult to secure, the demand must be extended. And if only a symbolic effort is made to address the inter-generational theft, pain, and suffering of African peoples, concrete measure such as demanding governments like the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Spain and others make recompense with significant contributions that exceed the generosity of India to the memorial is a first step. Potential allies like elder statesman, United States Congressman the Honorable John Conyers who has tried to pass a reparations bill in the United States should be meaningfully re-engaged. His seat at the Advisory Committee’s table however, remained empty. In attendance was Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, who has had the boldness to make meaningful changes in her local district, is now presented with a unique opportunity to make history nationally if she convinces fellow Congressional Black Caucus members to rally government funds for the Permanent Memorial, and have the Obama administration ratify the DDPA as many other countries have.

Representing the African Union was Morocco whose spokesperson pressed, “The international community has a moral obligation to support this initiative”.

This amorphous group referenced isn’t only government but corporations with a moral and legal imperative. Atlanta Life Insurance, Cruzan Rums and the Swedish Export Credit Corporation and others have historic ties to the slave trade. They must be approached in support of the Permanent Memorial. If the diplomatic community does not feel it is its place to play such a role then NGO’s, social movements, and “ordinary citizens” must be apprised of donations granted so they might apply pressure to private sector entities, and their respective governments to contribute to fund raising for the Permanent Memorial. Hopefully the website will do that. With no open or transparent process for engaging civil society in this process, this important cause will remain tethered. Far more reaching, devastating in duration, and cost of human life and potential than any other crime human beings have committed against one another, the Permanent Memorial to the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade deserves the same urgency, recognition and resolve as other human beings who cried, “Never Again!” Civil society thus, cannot wait to be invited into these processes but must take its own initiatives and make use of the website as a primary step to having a collective recanting of these outstanding human rights issues.

One notable problem of the website is how its scrolled parchment motif keeps one steeped in the past, as if the African slave trade does not continue to impact descendants in incalculable ways in contemporary societies. Any memorial designated to honor its victims needs not only advocates and believers, but it deserves a true champion that adheres the practices of the past to the policies of the present. A website is potentially an important tool in that regard.

The slave trade itself was a global phenomena thus the Permanent Memorial challenges all of us to be true guardians of world history and heritage. An urgent task, it is consistent with the timbre of progressive political agendas. Acting on what the international community has already recognized through numerous resolutions are a series of next steps our diplomatic associates and the Permanent Memorial Advisory Committee might consider taking immediately: tie the UN slavery memorial website to UNESCO’s Slave Routes Project (www.portal.unesco.org) among others; strategically connect fundraising efforts to important, high profile events coincident in 2011, namely, the International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims and the TransAtlantic Slave Trade: March 25th; the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade: August 23rd; the convening Durban Review III in September; as well as, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery: December 2nd. With so many African countries celebrating their 50th or more year of independence and 2011 declared UN International Year of African Descendant, the Permanent Memorial should be on all agendas. A good website like a good book keeps the past worth remembering. Listing events relative to these commemorations and their programs will make it worth visiting again and again.

India's Ambassador presents a cheque of $250,000 to Ambassador Raymond Wolfe of Jamaica towards the Permanent Memorial Fund. Photo: Dowoti Desir

A memorial that honors the victims of slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the least we can do to pay homage to those courageous ancestors. Like the Statute of Liberty who paradoxically was originally an African woman, not the chiseled, aquiline featured woman gazing across the water we are familiar with, its presence will have an unquantifiable effect on all of us. For most human beings, monuments and memorials are about more than mere brick and mortar, marble or bronze but cultural pride, knowledge, human security, and the ability to mark transformations in our societies. See the new website for  more information.

By Dowoti Désir

Ms. Dowoti Désir is the Founder of the DDPA Watch Group. She is culture rights activist, curator of contemporary art in the African Diapsora, and independent scholar based in New York. Dowoti Desir is producer with AfrobeatRadio.

One Comment »

  • Mikaela ell said:

    this is very interesting, i hope to here more about this later on in the future.
    Thanks Mikaela

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