Kofi Annan puts Britain straight about slavery

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan gave British politicians a much-needed history lesson when he addressed both houses of parliament. Here The-Latest prints the full text of his extraordinary speech on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

'In the long history of human wrongs, the trade in human beings will go down as one of the greatest crimes ever committed.

Ladies and gentlemen, numerous forts dot the coastline of my country (Ghana). The view from their upper levels is as picturesque as their history is dark. One of them, Christiansborg Castle in Accra, was finished in 1661 by the Danes, close to the time the first Asante King, Osei Tutu, rose to power. It is still viewed as the symbol of an era in our history that we need to understand better.

It was from these forts and trading posts - through the "door of no return" - that African slaves began their terrible journey across the Atlantic. Many perished in the fetid, dark, overcrowded dungeons even before they could be herded on to ships for the living hell of the "middle passage". The New World for them held only the promise of a life of unremitting toil on the plantations, as the disposable chattels of fellow human beings. There were good reasons why these forts became feared as places of no return - and good reasons why every one of us should resolve that humanity must never return to the cruelty that was practised there.

Let us not forget that slavery had an earlier history, going back many centuries. It existed in Neolithic Europe, in all the ancient civilisations of Egypt, the Middle East - and of Greece, whose slaves came mostly from the Balkans and the Black Sea. Many generations of Europeans were brought up on Aristotle's "Politics", in which they could read that certain people were slaves 'by nature", being deficient in the capacities for rational deliberation required to manage their own lives.

The Roman Empire enslaved so many people that its armies required trained specialists to deal with the huge number of captives. The English word "slave" itself derives from the Slavs who were captured and sold westward during Europe's Dark Ages.

Hardly any part of the world is exempt from this stain on human history. Most of the great Asian empires developed sophisticated slave routes. Slavery was also part of the indigenous power structures in the Americas; and it was certainly not unknown in Africa before the European traders arrived.

In some parts of the world the slave trade was the first trade of any kind to be carried on over long distances on a large scale - and the means by which whole regions, such as Brazil, were first integrated into the world economy. The first wave of globalisation, one could say.

The very distance that the slaves were transported had a commercial value: the further they were taken from their homes the harder it was for them to escape, and so the more secure the slaveowner could feel - and the higher the price he would be prepared to pay.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, the trade whose abolition we commemorate today was an abominable practice taken to its most abominable extreme. At the time of its abolition the transatlantic slave trade involved the forcible transportation of 100,000 people every year. And today we should ask ourselves not only why Britain abolished it 200 years ago, but why it was tolerated for so long.

The economic value of slaves is obvious enough. The plantations in the new world created a huge demand for labour, and the "triangular trade" - in which the same ships carried European goods to Africa, African slaves to the Americas, and American sugar, cotton and tobacco to Europe- was hugely profitable. But that is hardly a sufficient explanation for its prevalence. After all, slavery ran counter to some of the most fundamental enlightenment values.

Slavery throve partly because its horrors remained largely hidden from the eyes of British and European consumers. They enjoyed the sugar that the slave ships brought back, but did not see the cruelty and suffering that lay behind it. Out of sight meant truly out of mind.

It was by making the British people aware of the cruelty and suffering of plantation slavery that the abolitionists eventually prevailed. They publicised the violence, the whippings, the mutilations, and the unpunished murder of slaves; the broken families, children wrenched from their mothers, wives from their husbands, and sold for profit. These powerful images awoke the humanitarian impulse of the British public.

Thomas Clarkson, the moving spirit behind the founding of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery in 1787, concentrated on highlighting the horrors of the slave trade. His lectures, and the physical evidence of the trade's brutality that he collected, presented a damning indictment.

Twenty years later, when the law abolishing the trade was passed, William Wilberforce, MP, its main sponsor, had this to say:

" I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried under their authority. We are all guilty - we ought to plead guilty and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others".

Wilberforce was right, for in earlier years this same Parliament had approved more than 100 laws accommodating the slave trade. And even afterwards, this Parliament voted 23 million pounds' worth of compensation - equivalent to 100 times that amount today - for the "victims". Not the victims of slavery or the trade itself, but the victims of its elimination; in other words, the slave owners.

Nor should we think of the slaves themselves as passive recipients of British generosity. The slave trade would not have collapsed without their repeated, often desperate, revolts - not least the great rebellion led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which eventually established the Republic of Haiti and liberated half a million slaves; and the protests led by Sam Sharpe in Jamaica, which paved the way for the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire.

Ladies and gentlemen, abolition, like today's human rights causes, is not a matter for attribution. It is about personal responsibility and the need for each one of us to think what we can do; rather than seeking to shift the blame to someone else. It is a universal fight.

The same way we can celebrate Clarkson and Wilberforce, with the support of the Quakers, as the precursors of today's human rights movement - one could say the first modern NGO- we can also trace examples such as the brave Africans that brought about, in no small way, the Amistad Affair, the first American civil rights cause.

The abolitionist movement was the first campaign to bring together a coalition in a struggle against gross violations of human dignity. It showed how effective the mobilization of public opinion can be. The abolitionists of eighteenth-century Britain represented a moral truth that seemed remote from the ways of the world, a moral passion that must at first have seemed utterly impracticable. Yet by persistence, by resolve, by eloquence, and by imagination, they changed history. They showed that moral suasion could prevail over narrow self-interest. They demonstrated that public opinion could change the law. In the half-century following the Slave Trade Act, the Royal Navy freed almost a hundred and fifty thousand human beings. Ideals that once seemed quixotic were backed with battleships. And so we revisit the history of the slave trade not only with horror but with hope.

However, victory in this kind of struggle is never total or final. Even in the British Empire, slavery remained legal for another 26 years after the slave trade was abolished - and, of course, the trade went on through most of the 19th century despite British efforts to stop it. We should beware the sigh of relief - there is always more work to be done.

Long after slavery was abolished, many people clung to the premise on which it was based - the notion that certain groups of human beings are hereditarily inferior to others. That was an attitude that helped sponsor a deeper and more widespread colonial occupation of the African continent later in the 19 th century. That is why I feel it is important today to remember another great anniversary that falls this year. Fifty years ago, my country, Ghana, inaugurated a new era of African independence.

Neither emancipation nor independence can guarantee freedom simply by being proclaimed. In most countries, racial discrimination is now officially frowned on, and laws have been passed against it. But the work of emancipation does not stop there. It must continue until we have removed the stigma, the patterns of deference and the denial of respect which lie at the heart of racism.

We must remember that racism in another guise inflicted a terrible wound on humanity right in the heart of Europe: the Holocaust that was carried out against the Jewish people - and against the Roma and other groups arbitrarily proclaimed "sub-human" by the Nazis. So perhaps it is appropriate that we hold this commemoration on the eighth of May, the day that marks Europe's liberation from Nazism. That enables us to associate these two great self-inflicted tragedies of the human race, and the two great, if very different, liberation struggles that brought them to an end. And it reminds us of the greater, un-concluded struggle of which they were both part - the struggle against man's inhumanity to man, so painfully visible in recent years, from the Balkans to Rwanda to Darfur.

Despite the fact that all human beings are born free and equal in human dignity, every day thousands of women and children are sold so that their bodies and their labour can be exploited. Despite international labour standards and a UN Protocol against human trafficking, millions of victims, particularly children - made vulnerable by poverty and exploited by criminals - are working in mines, sweatshops, brothels and plantations - trapped by debt and violence. In a perverse commercialization of humanity, they are used like products and then thrown away.

Slavery cannot be relegated to the annals of history so long as men, women and children are still being coerced, drugged, tricked, and sold to do dangerous and degrading work against their will.

I therefore applaud the UN-led Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking - also known as UN.GIFT - that was launched in the House of Lords at the end of March, and the steps that are being taken in the United Kingdom to stop this crime. Let us take action to prevent any more victims from having their dreams of a better future turn into nightmares of exploitation and servitude.

Many Africans believe history has not yet repaired past wounds at all. The movement for reparations is fuelled by the desire for recognition. This is a battle better fought in the development domain. In the year 2000, when all member states of the United Nations approved the Millennium Declaration, including the Millennium Development Goals, they acknowledged that all human beings must face a common future, and must do so in a spirit of solidarity based on shared democratic ideals.

In order to build on our common rights and values, we must be conscious of our intertwined fate. And we have to face the possibility, if not the likelihood, that Africa may be the only region of the world that does not attain the majority of the MDGs by 2015. A bold investment in addressing poverty in Africa, as promised by the G8 in Gleneagles, would be the best way to repair the wounds of the past and turn the page.

My friends, let us remember that the officers of the slave ships were for the most part educated people, like you and me. Yet they were apparently at ease in their role. Instead of recognizing the slaves as fellow human beings, they looked on them as simple merchandise. This reminds us how easy it is to blind ourselves to the suffering of fellow creatures, so long as our own comfort and security are not threatened. We should all look carefully at our own lives, and ask what abominations we may even now be tolerating, or joining in, or benefiting from. The slave trade as practised 200 years ago may be history. But moral blindness is ever present. Let us not close our eyes to crimes that shame us all.

The slave trade was eventually abolished because many thousands of people examined their own consciences, and took personal responsibility for what was happening around them. We must approach today's abuses in the same spirit - each of us seeking, not to blame someone else, but to think what we can do to hasten their end. And we must do so sustained by the knowledge that change - to the point of profound transformation - is possible. This is not the least of the abolitionists' legacy. There is no evil so entrenched that it cannot be eradicated.

Inspired by the abolitionists of two centuries ago, let us fight against exploitation and oppression and stand up for freedom and human dignity.

The battle for freedom and justice is never hopeless, but it is never finally won. Every morning, we must wake up ready to fight it again.'