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SEEN UP NORTH: Lest we forget slavery

Tony Best

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“It’s a permanent memorial that is of considerable significance to us from the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, indeed, to the international community.”
Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations, Joseph?Goddard, offered that assessment of an initiative being spearheaded by Caribbean and African states and strongly supported by a long list of countries at the world body.
He had just listened to speeches, exchanged views with some of his diplomatic colleagues and others and had toured an exhibition of images of heroes and activists, original documents, historical illustrated newspapers and artifacts from a private 19th century collection that recorded many of the abhorrent and brutal acts of slavery in different parts of the world, including the Caribbean.
“The  construction of a permanent memorial will not only serve as a reminder of the slave trade’s legacy but will provide future generations with an understanding of the history and consequences of slavery,” Goddard said at the UN headquarters at the end of a cultural and culinary event, highlighted by a performance by the National Ballet of the Cameroon.
“Barbados has contributed to the trust which has attracted contributions from several countries around the world. It’s to be a lasting memorial for all to see, that’s how we view it.”
The event was the culmination of a three-day programme of activities that began with a non-governmental organization briefing on the transatlantic slave trade, one of the worst, if not the worst, human tragedy in history.
Raymond Wolfe, Jamaica’s UN ambassador and who, as chairman of the Permanent Memorial Committee, is the driving force behind the initiative, described it as providing the world with “a sharp reminder of our tragic past in which billions of Africans were uprooted and carried over to the Americas. What that represented was man’s inhumanity to man . . . . It will also serve as a means of educating current and future generations that never again this abominable tragedy should be allowed to happen.”
Wolfe said the memorial, which could be unveiled at the UN headquarters as early as late next year or by 2014 when the world body’s extensive renovations would have been completed, emphasized the need for “children at early ages to be taught to have respect for each other and that every effort must be made to eliminate the consequences and legacies of the slave trade which lingers with us in terms of bigotry, xenophobia, racial prejudice and other negative signals which are there”.
The transatlantic slave trade existed for more than 250 years and made billions of people of African descent its victims while enriching European and North Americans who made billions of dollars during the horror’s existence.
“The negative features still persist in some countries,” added Wolfe.
According to Goddard, Wolfe, Dessima Williams, Grenada’s ambassador to the UN and Chritsaka Chipaziwa, Zimbabwe’s top diplomat to the UN, the memorial must be displayed on a prominent site at the UN, easily accessible to the more than one million annual visitors to the international organization.
The project is being financed by a trust fund, established through the United Nations Office for Partnership that is administering the fund and is working alongside the Permanent Memorial Committee.
Australia, for instance, recently gave US$150 000 in three tranches, the most recent of which was donated a few weeks ago, making that country the second largest contributor behind India which has given more than US$260 000.
Finland has donated slightly more than US$100 000 while the United States, perhaps the world’s largest transatlantic slave-owning country, hasn’t provided any financial help.
“We are satisfied with where we are today and we are confident of attracting even more contributions,” said Wolfe. “We are working to secure commitments from corporate America.”
Goddard, at the UN now for at least two years, hoped that Washington would eventually offer financial assistance.
Working with UNESCO, the committee has launched a memorial design competition that has attracted more than 300 designs from 83 countries.
“The entries were reviewed and 16 semi-finalists were selected and we are now embarking on phase two where an independent international panel of judges will be appointed to review the designs of the semi-finalists and choose seven finalists who will be invited to New York for interviews,” explained Wolfe.