By launching the Slave Route Project in 1994, UNESCO seeks to promote the rapprochement of peoples through the shared legacy of this tragedy. The celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Slave Route Project was an opportunity to revisit the road travelled, and the efforts made so as this tragedy becomes a source of inspiration for present and future generations.
In a warm tribute, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova has described the Slave Route Project to be "one of UNESCO’s flagship projects", implying that "if the crime involved many nations, the memory of the crime can now, inversely, bring together nations and show irreversible connections that have been created between peoples."
Federico Mayor, former UNESCO Director-General, stressed the project’s importance in a personal message for this celebration: “Let us learn the lessons of humanism that the 'Slave Route' has already given... To forgive but not to forget. To illuminate the present roads. And to vigilantly go down the roads leading to a future with bright horizons for all humans without exception.”
Under the motto "Accounts, Markings and Creativity", the celebration began with a round table entitled "From Slave Route to the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024)". Members of the International Scientific Committee of the project Nelly Schmidt and Sir Hilary Beckles, as well as Mactar Ndoye, Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and H.E. Courtenay Rattray, Chairman of the Permanent Memorial Committee in honour of the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade in New York, presented the challenges of this history and discussed the role that UNESCO, through this project, can play in the implementation of the Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) which will be launched next year by the United Nations.
UNESCO program chief, Ali Moussa Iye, reminded the achievements of the projects, including 200,000 digitized historical documents, the implementation of pedagogical tools for education, the inscription of 44 sites on the World Heritage List linked to this history, and the safeguarding of numerous oral traditions and cultural expression, from four continents, as Intangible Heritage. He suggested areas to explore in the field of culture such as multiple cultural, technical, philosophical and spiritual contributions of people of African descent. He emphasized that UNESCO is equipped to contribute to the implementation of this Decade whose theme is "Recognition, Justice and Development".
Doudou Diene, former UNESCO Project Director of Intercultural Roads, urged to reconsider slavery not only as a thing of the past but also as a challenge for contemporary multicultural societies in a world where dialogue and cultural diversity remain to be achieved. In order to present the rich facets of the history of slavery, the exhibition ‘Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers’ was inaugurated in the presence of the Ambassador of India, Ms. Ruchira Kamboj, who paid tribute to this harmonious contribution stressing that "it is also a tribute and the strongest testimony to the open-mindedness of the Indian society in which they were an ethnic minority, and whose secular fabric in fact continues to be one of the most powerful characteristics of Indian society where India has proven through its history that diversity does not pull people apart, but rather it brings them closer together."
The ceremony began solemnly and continued at a frenetic pace dotted by fervent tributes from renowned artists and colourful artistic performances which expressed the entire palette of African legacy. UNESCO Artist for Peace and spokesman for the Slave Route Project, Marcus Miller, recalled that "music is the most important heritage that the slaves kept alive throughout the centuries."
The event reached its culmination with the speech delivered by the French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, author of the 2001 law, bearing her name, that recognizes slavery as a crime against humanity: "The challenge today is to understand the globalization that divides people to better exploit. This globalization can be replaced by universality, one in which we meet the Other, so that the Other is not seen as a good to be sold."
The celebration granted a special place for women in honour of the crucial role they played in the resistance against slavery and the transmission of culture and memory, roles often gone unnoticed.
Two images that will undoubtedly remain in the minds of the participants are that of the majestic soaring, around the symbolic globe, of seventy doves, suggesting the symbolic 70th anniversary of UNESCO and that of Marcus Miller, spokesman for the project, speaking in music with other musicians and dancers during the "jam session" at the reception hosted by the American Delegation.