Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very pleased to participate in this virtual event “Recognizing the Past, Repairing the Present, Building the Future” for the Inaugural Commemoration of the European Day for the Abolition of the Slave Trade of the European Parliament.
It may be tempting to relegate slavery to the past, and this commemoration could be seen as an important moment for us to gather and activate this tragic memory. But the consequences of slavery are still very much alive today!
We have neither repaired past wrongdoings nor fixed our unfair and unequal societies. The legacy of slavery has infested all our political, legal, cultural and socio-economic structures for centuries, and this year it has been further strengthened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Across Europe, people of African descent are confronted with prejudice and exclusion. Racial discrimination and harassment are commonplace, and experiences with racist violence vary, but reach as high as 14%. Even if we do not have consistent clinical data for Europe on the racial dimension of the COVID-19 infection, we know that the situation can be comparable to other regions. In the US, African-Americans are twice as likely to be contaminated, and three times as likely to die from Covid-19. In Chicago, Black people account for 67% of deaths while they make up only 32% of the population. In Canada, COVID-19 has had an important impact on populations who face greater health inequities. In Toronto, Black people and other people of colour reportedly make up 83% of reported COVID-19 cases, while they only make up half of the city’s population.
In the same vein, other racial/ethnic minorities, including indigenous populations, are likewise affected by the current conjuncture. In Canada, the percentage of First Nations individuals living on reserve reported positive for COVID-19 is currently one-quarter the rate of the general Canadian population.
The pandemic crisis reveals the structure racial inequalities but also the social and economic inequalities of our democratic societies.
This is why first I would like to congratulate the European Parliament for backing the important resolution to recognize the slave trade as a “crime against humanity” and make 2 December “European Day commemorating the Abolition of the Slave Trade.”
As you can imagine, this Resolution resonates strongly with UNESCO’s mandate and commitment to address the history of slavery and its tragic consequences in today’s world, in line with the recently adopted EU Anti-racism Action Plan for 2020-2025.
UNESCO has been fighting against racism and discriminations for more than 70 years – from the intellectual initiatives led by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1950s to several programmatic activities such as the General History of Africa, the Inclusive Cities network, the Slave Route Project and Master Classes against Racism and Discriminations.
Today, we are scaling up our work to combat racism and discriminations through the development of a roadmap which includes a scanning project to strengthen institutional and legal frameworks, affirmative actions in public and private sectors, and anti-biases trainings that fight stereotypes and promote positive role models.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact of discrimination and racism in our societies, with the most disadvantaged groups being affected by the pandemic. The crisis has also had a disastrous impact on women – violence against women and girls increased by 70% in some countries due to lockdown measures, like a shadow pandemic.
The long-standing legacy of racism and prejudice inherited from slavery has prevailed and continues to expose the wounds in our societies. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has simply revived these scars.
Also in Europe, prejudice and exclusion continue to prevail in the lives of people of African descent. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the proliferation of racist programmes and acts of violence against people of African descent has increased by 14% since the pandemic.
In this sense, the present, before turning to the future, must go through the first reparation: the history. An objective and serene history freed from the prejudices inherited from the period of slavery and integrating in its proper place the contribution of these populations in national narratives and their contributions to the general progress of humanity.
The present must also understand what inexorably links it to the past and therefore what needs to be “healed”. While slavery has been abolished, the poison of racism continues to contaminate our societies, to kill, discriminate and humiliate. Despite international conventions and national laws, millions of people continue to suffer from racism and discrimination. We urgently need to put an end to structural racism and offer everyone fair treatment in terms of education, employment, access to justice, health or housing.
Racism is also very costly! According to the US report on “Closing the racial inequality gaps” by CITI, closing the black racial wage gap 20 years ago might have provided an additional $2.7 trillion in income available for consumption and investment. Facilitating increased access to higher education for black students might have bolstered lifetime incomes that in aggregate amounts to $90 to $113 billion.
Here we are, halfway through the International Decade for People of African Descent, which has made it possible to put the issue at the very center of the agenda of the international community, giving to each State and each institution the opportunity to finally give themselves the means to achieve more justice, more development, and more recognition for these populations.
This is why, in 1964, UNESCO launched the elaboration of the General History of Africa (GHA) to remedy the general ignorance on Africa’s history. The challenge consisted of reconstructing Africa’s history, freeing it from racial prejudices ensuing from the slave trade and colonization, and promoting an African perspective. In 1994, UNESCO launched the Slave Route Project, which has broken the silence surrounding the slave trade that concerns all continents and caused the great upheavals that have shaped our modern societies.
This meeting is very important. But the follow up to this meeting, and how we are going to work together to build synergies and coordinate our action, will be even more important.
Lastly, I would like to quote the great African philosopher, Professor Achille Mbembe:
“The imperative to “deracialize” is also valid for Europe, for the United States, for Brazil and for other parts of the world. The emergence of new varieties of racism in Europe and elsewhere, the reassertion of global white supremacy, of populism and retro-nationalism, the weaponization of difference and identity are not only symptoms of a deep distrust of the world. They are also fostered by transnational forces capable of making that same world inhospitable, uninhabitable and unbreathable for many of us.”
In a spirit of solidarity, and in order to “build forward better”, it is necessary to dismantle racist structures, and reform racist institutions, legal frameworks and practices, upon which our societies are built. It is also necessary to change mindsets and undermine the racist stereotypes that persist in our imaginations. The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and to ensure that “no one is left behind”.