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Breaking the Silence: Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project
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International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition
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The Slave Route


Message from the Director-General of UNESCO on the occasion of the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition (2004)

The slave trade and slavery constitute one of the darkest chapters in the history of the world.

This dehumanizing enterprise, challenging the very basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and roundly condemned by the international community, in particular at the Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance which labelled it a "crime against humanity", gives us all cause for thought and requires each and every one of us to exercise due vigilance.

UNESCO welcomes the proclamation of 2004 by the United Nations General Assembly as "International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition", marking as it does the two-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the first Black republic, Haiti. Ten years after the launch of the UNESCO project on "The Slave Route", the whole world is thus afforded an opportunity not only to fulfil the necessary duty to remember a tragedy without precedent, but also to publicize the countless influences of this enforced dialogue on the cultures and civilizations of Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean. Aside from looking at the past, the intention is to sound the alarm about all forms of contemporary racism, discrimination and intolerance, and thus to set the stage for a greater awareness of the need to respect human beings.

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. To that end, we must promote the history of the slave trade and slavery, and make it known to the general public; we must also devote ourselves to rigorous scientific research that highlights the whole historical truth about the tragedy in a constructive perspective. As a matter of urgency 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 celebrating the bicentenary of the first Black republic and commemorating the great abolitionists, we shall forget neither the events which preceded it in Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804 and which eventually led to the freeing of the peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America, or the broader and more complex history of the abolition of slavery, a weave of substantial philosophical, political, legal, cultural and social advances and also of tragic setbacks. The triumph of the principles of liberty, equality and the dignity of human rights will thus be highlighted. This major milestone in the history of the liberation of peoples and the emergence of the States of the Americas and the Caribbean which should be better known and recognized.

However, this commemoration must also provide the setting for a more meaningful dialogue among cultures and civilizations. By retracing the cultural interactions brought about by the slave trade, which transported so many African men and women far from the land of their birth, we can indeed celebrate the extraordinary meeting of cultures born of this enforced dialogue. It has worked a profound and lasting transformation in the Americas and the Caribbean, bringing to the continent cultural traditions, forms of ingenuity, technical and scientific knowledge, skills and spirituality which are all now inseparable from American and Caribbean cultures. Knowing and recognizing the major imprint of African cultures on the formation of the world's cultures and civilizations will therefore be the second objective of the commemoration.

Through this restitution of history it should be 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, as we are invited to do by the final Declaration adopted by the Durban Conference. Understanding and analysing in depth this historical experience will surely enable us to understand more fully the discrimination that is manifest in today's world, and to commit ourselves with reinforced conviction to the fundamental values of human dignity, with a view to building a worthy and lasting future.

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. Its educational, ethical and civic importance can be considerable if we manage to give it sufficient attention.

That is why I am calling for greater participation, by civil society as a whole and by the public and private sectors in all Member States, so that they can all, in their own way, take an active part in celebrating 2004.

Ko´chiro Matsuura


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