Mauritania: A bastion for modern-day slavery

Country officially abolished the practice in 1981, making it the last country in the world to do so

Omar Shariff, Deputy GCC/Middle East Editor
13:15 October 11, 2017

Dubai: On September 8, a group of Americans landed in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, but were denied entry visas. The authorities refused to give a reason. However, it was clear it had something to do with the fact that the visitors were anti-slavery activists.

In 1981, Mauritania made history by becoming the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery. But, to this day, it continues to have one of the highest rates of modern-day slavery in the world.

It is not that the government is not alive to the situation; in 2007, it even passed an anti-slavery law. And, as recently as August 2015, Mauritania’s National Assembly approved a revised anti-slavery law allowing for stiffer sentences for officials who do not investigate cases of slavery, and for public officials who commit acts of slavery.

But the authorities have been accused of not doing enough to enforce the law, or of applying it selectively.

This has meant that there have only been two successful prosecutions for the crime of slavery to date, one under the 2007 law and one under the 2015 one.

In an interview with Gulf News, Sarah Mathewson, Africa Programme Manager at the UK-based Anti Slavery International, said, “Even these two cases were not a complete success as the sentences were extremely lenient; two years’ jail in the first case — only confirmed on appeal after five years, with the case still ongoing — and five years for the two slave-owners in the second prosecution, with four years suspended.”

Such is the prevalence of the practice in the country that slaves inherit their status from one generation to the next. Many areas in Mauritania are still feudal. There are also ethnic, race, and class distinctions that run deep in society. The “owners” often mistreat the slaves, and the victims are denied basic rights.

The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimated that in Mauritania, 43,000 people or 1.06 per cent of the country’s population, live in conditions of modern and traditional slavery.

But, according to Mathewson, it is very difficult to know the exact number, as slavery practices are usually shrouded in secrecy and taboo.

“A tiny minority of the people suffering this form of slavery run away, and many fugitive slaves are assisted by local anti-slavery organisations SOS-Esclaves and IRA-Mauritania, which receive an average of one new case a month between them. Extrapolating from the data we have on 270-plus cases, we would estimate that the number is in the tens of thousands. However, no definitive survey has ever been carried out.”

The Harantine ethnic group in Mauritania continues to be the biggest victim of slavery in the country. And the community with a strong and enduring tradition of slave-owning is the Arabic-speaking Beidan, also known as White Moors. They are dominant in the country’s government, military, judiciary, and own most of the land and businesses. “Historically, they raided and enslaved black Africans from sub-Saharan ethnic groups, and over time those slaves were assimilated into Moor culture,” said Mathewson. “The slave-descended population now constitutes a distinct Arabic-speaking group called the Haratine (also known as Black Moors). There are other ethnically Black groups in the country that also have a tradition of slave-owning, but the actual practice of slavery among those groups has largely ended today.

“Some slaves live together with their masters and remain under their direct control. Others might live in separate settlements, only visited from time to time by their masters, but remain under their control and are considered their slaves, looking after their animals or farming their land, in practices similar to serfdom.”

For slaves in Mauritania, it is extremely difficult to run away from slavery. Subjugation to their masters is total, and even those who have escaped slavery are seen as being part of the “slave caste” and are socially ostracised. People who were born into slavery have no birth certificates, they cannot access education or any other public services.

It would be incorrect to assume that slavery in Mauritania is a rural phenomenon, as there have been many slavery cases recorded in urban areas.

However, since most of the country is agrarian, slaves work on their masters’ farmlands. Men tend to herd animals, while women and children are engaged in domestic labour.

Mathewson believes because some elites have strong slave-owning connections and interests in maintaining the status quo, ensuring that laws against slavery are enforced is a major challenge. “Since 2014, Anti-Slavery International has filed 13 new legal cases, all of which, with the exception of the case mentioned above, are stalled at the investigative, prosecutorial or trial level.

In many cases, the authorities, in particular the police, do not take action after reports of slavery are brought to their attention, often claiming that the site of slavery is inaccessible or too far away. If investigations take place, they are usually limited to interviewing the victims and alleged masters, and often bringing the two together, which places enormous pressure on vulnerable victims. ‘Masters’ are often arrested and quickly released on bail, with the next stage of proceedings never to take place.”