Mauritania: Modern Slavery in Mauritania

17 October 2013

An excerpt from the Global Slavery Index published by the Walk Free Foundation:

Mauritania has the highest proportion of people in slavery in the world.

According to one NGO in Mauritania, up to 20 percent of the Mauritanian population is enslaved.

While not identical to the Global Slavery Index estimated of prevalence, these two figures, in the absence of more precise measurement, point to a growing consensus of high levels of enslavement in Mauritania.

Slavery in Mauritania primarily takes the form of chattel slavery, meaning that adults and children in slavery are the full property of their masters who exercise total ownership over them and their descendants. Slave status has been passed down through the generations from people originally captured during historical raids by the slave-owning groups.

People in slavery may be bought and sold, rented out and given away as gifts. Slavery is prevalent in both rural and urban areas. It is reported that women are disproportionately affected by slavery; for example, they usually work within the domestic sphere, and a high level of control is exercised over their movements and social interactions.

They are subject to sexual assault by their masters. Women's roles include childcare and domestic chores, but they may also herd animals and farm, as men in slavery do.

Beyond the context of private homes, it is reported that some boys, who have been sent to attend Koranic schools to become talibes (students), have been forced into begging.

Although the scale of this problem is not known, it is thought to be quite significant; affecting local boys as well as boys trafficked into Mauritania from the surrounding regions.

It is also reported that women have been subjected to forced marriage and sexual exploitation, both within Mauritania but also in the Middle East.

Slaves are not permitted to have any possessions, as they are considered to be possessions themselves.

As such they are denied inheritance rights and ownership of land and other resources. When an enslaved person marries, the dowry is taken by the 'master' and if they die their property can be claimed by the 'master'.

Notable aspects of the problem

Mauritanian society is made up of three main ethnic groups, commonly known as Black Moors or Haratins, Afro-Mauritanians, and White Moors.

Haratins, whose name literally means "ones who have been freed", are descendants of the Black Moors, the historical slave population ('Haratin' is not a term that is used by Haratin people use to identify themselves as it can be discriminatory).

The Haratins are understood to be the 'property' of the White Moors, who are a minority in the country but wield disproportionate (majority) political and economic power.

Indoctrination to ensure people in slavery accept their situation of ownership is a key feature of slavery in Mauritania, with understandings of race and class, as well as some religious teachings being used to justify slavery. Without access to education or alternative means of subsistence, many believe that it is God's wish for them to be slaves.

As most people in slavery are kept illiterate and uneducated, they are unaware of the fact that according to Islamic law, a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim.

Compounding this, the legal and policy framework to protect women's rights in Mauritania is extremely deficient, with many discriminatory laws. Indeed, according to the 2001 Family Code (Code du Statut personnel), women remain perpetual minors. Harmful traditional practices, including early and forced marriages and female genital mutilation, are commonplace. There is no specific law against violence against women and marital rape is not a crime.

Although Mauritania has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it entered a reservation stating that only articles that comply with Sharia Law and the Mauritanian Constitution would be applied. The Sharia Law and the Criminal Code currently pose grave violations to women's rights; for instance, women who are victims of rape can be prosecuted for the crime of Zina (adultery).

What is the government doing about it?

Mauritania has ratified a number of key international treaties regarding modern slavery but not the Domestic Work Convention.

The ILO Committee of Experts has repeatedly expressed concern about the situation in Mauritania, and has called on the Government to take steps including: adopt a comprehensive strategy against slavery; ensure that victims can actually assert their rights and seek help; ensure that authorities undertake investigations promptly; and ensure that prison sentences are actually imposed on perpetrators.

Slavery has been prohibited by Mauritanian law since 1961, when the Government redrafted the Constitution, following independence from France, and incorporated various principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1981, after a coup d'état, Mauritania again declared slavery illegal, through Decree No. 81234. However, no legislation was introduced to implement the Decree.

It was only in 2003 that a law was passed against trafficking in persons, and four years later, the 2007-048 law provided a new definition for slavery and attached to it a penalty of five to 10 years' imprisonment and a fine for violations of the law. Taken together, these laws criminalise trafficking in persons and most forms of slavery.

The 2007-048 law provides for victim compensation and assistance for those released from slavery and makes liable those who do not follow-up a denunciation of slavery to sentencing and a fine.

This includes police officers and chiefs who may be complicit to these crimes. There are some gaps in Mauritania's criminal laws on modern slavery as some practices, including forced marriage and debt-bondage, are not criminalised.

Despite the existence of national laws, it is reportedly very difficult for victims of slavery to seek access to justice in Mauritania. The burden of proof lies with the victim and investigations cannot be pursued unless a victim files a complaint. Human rights organisations for example, cannot file a case on behalf of a victim.

This is highly problematic in light of the fact that most victims are illiterate, making it impossible to manage the paperwork. Victims of slavery often do not know about their rights and their claim to protection from the law.

The Government provides no support for programmes to assist victims to file complaints of slavery. As many victims have been indoctrinated by the practice of intergenerational slavery, it is extremely difficult for them to pursue legal challenges against their 'masters' in court. These and other difficulties are reflected in low levels of investigations and prosecutions under the relevant laws.

In 2012, the ILO Committee of Experts referred to information from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) that even though several victims had tried to take action against their 'masters', only one conviction has been handed down in November 2011 and the convicted offender was released on bail pending the appeal of this sentence.48

The appeal has still not taken place at the time of writing (July 2013) and he remains at liberty. The Government is known to have only investigated two cases in 2013.

Beyond information about the existence of national laws, very limited information is available about the Mauritanian Government response to this issue. Information about the budget allocated by the Government to supporting the eradication of slavery is unclear.

According to one report, the Government allocated 1 billion ouguiyas (MRO) (approximately US $3.3 million) to a National Programme for the Eradication of the Vestiges of Slavery in 2009, which focused on preventing slavery by improving education and health, and alleviating poverty. It did not focus on awareness- raising or efforts to combat the impunity of offenders, or protect victims.

The extent to which it was implemented is unclear, with no detailed results having been released, and the Programme has now been closed. The Programme was replaced by a new national Agency against the Vestiges of Slavery, for Integration and against Poverty (established in March 2013), but no information has been published on its mandate or work plans.

The likely impact of this Agency on the practice of slavery is unclear, given its reported focus on poverty alleviation without any focus on the social context that permits and fosters slavery.

In terms of measures to combat the impunity of offenders, there is no special law enforcement unit, and no system in place to collect and record data concerning slavery.54

It is reported that more than 500 law enforcement and judicial officials have participated in training on the implementation of the anti-slavery law. Mauritania has a Labour Inspectorate but, in addition to being confronted with corruption, the Inspectorate does not have the resources to carry out enough work to enforce the country's labour laws.

The only victim protection mechanism in place in Mauritania is limited to child victims. Delivered through the Government and NGOs, assistance takes the form of training and education within child protection centres, with an effort to reintegrate children back into public schools.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, Childhood and the Family operate four National Centres for the Protection and Social Integration of Children.55 NGOs have noted that these centres are not fully functioning, due to a lack of funding, and it is unknown how many of the total number of children assisted are victims of modern slavery (ninety children received services from the centres in 2012-13 according to the US TIP Report 2013).

In 2010, an office of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) opened in Nouakchott. It has since focused on developing a 'road map' to ending slavery and plans to work with the Government to implement the necessary steps. However, in December 2012, the road map had not yet been finalised or published.

While there are recent examples of NGO and Government cooperation on this issue, cooperation with civil society on forced labour, trafficking and slavery is not institutionalised.

Only the multi-stakeholder Child Trafficking, Smuggling and Labour Group includes NGOs and other members of the civil society in a systematic manner. There exists no involvement of social partners.

Notable aspects of the response

As noted above, in March 2013, the President of Mauritania established a new agency to combat slavery, the National Agency to Fight against the Vestiges of Slavery, Integration, and Fight against Poverty.

This agency has the aim to tackle poverty, and to promote integration of refugees, with the aim to end slavery through abolishing some of the factors pertaining to it. Further information on its mandate and practical functioning remain to be observed.

What needs to happen?

Mauritania should:

  • Perform a nationwide study to collect more precise data on prevalence and nature of existing forms of slavery, as part of a larger focus on eradication.
  • Publish an annual report on efforts and progress made in the work of the National Agency to Fight against the Vestiges of Slavery, Integration, and Fight against Poverty.
  • Focus on removing and addressing barriers to access to justice for victims, including through allowing NGOs to assist victims to file complaints.
  • Focus on ending the impunity of offenders, through ensuring that all slavery cases are investigated and where sufficient evidence, prosecuted.
  • Clearly mandate and task one central unit of law enforcement with responsibility for investigating, and reporting quarterly on progress of investigations of slavery.
  • Clearly mandate and task one central unit of the prosecution service with responsibility for prosecuting, and reporting quarterly on progress of prosecutions of slavery.
  • Establish a victim-support mechanism, with emergency shelter and assistance, legal assistance and reintegration programmes.
  • Ensure existing poverty reduction strategies include a focus on enabling enslaved people and former slaves to generate income independent from their former masters.

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