Slavery in Mauritania
Slavery has been called "deeply rooted" in the structure of the northwestern African country of Mauritania, and "closely tied" to the ethnic composition of the country.
In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, when a presidential decree abolished the practice. However, no criminal laws were passed to enforce the ban. In 2007, "under international pressure", the government passed a law allowing slaveholders to be prosecuted. Despite this, the number of slaves in the country has been estimated by Global Slavery Index to be 43,000 (or 1.058% of the population) in 2015 and by the organization SOS Slavery to be up to 600,000 (or 17% of the population). Sociologist Kevin Bales and Global Slavery Index estimate that Mauritania has the highest proportion of people in slavery of any country in the world. While other countries in the region have people in "slavelike conditions", the situation in Mauritania is "unusually severe", according to African history professor Bruce Hall.
A November 2009 United Nations mission, headed by UN Special Rapporteur Gulnara Shahinian, evaluated slavery practices in the country. In an August 2010 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) it concluded that "despite laws, programmes and difference of opinion with regard to the existence of slavery in Mauritania, ... de facto slavery continues to exist in Mauritania".
Slave status has been passed down through the generations. The descendants of black Africans captured during historical slave raids now live in Mauritania as "black Moors" or haratin, some of them still serve as slaves to the lighter-skinned "white" or beydan ("Whites") (Berbers or mixed Berber-Arabs, descendants of slave-owners known collectively as al-beydan). According to Global Slavery Index, slavery of adults and children in Mauritania "primarily takes the form of chattel slavery" (i.e. the slaves and their descendants "are the full property of their masters"). Slaves "may be bought and sold, rented out and given away as gifts". Slavery in Mauritania is "prevalent in both rural and urban areas", but women are reportedly "disproportionately affected" by slavery. Women slaves "usually work within the domestic sphere", caring for children and doing domestic chores, but "may also herd animals and farm". Women slaves "are subject to sexual assault by their masters". Because slave status is matrilineal, slaves typically serve the same families that their mothers and grandmothers did. They usually sleep and eat in the same quarters as the animals of their owning families. Slaves are "not restrained by chains" but by "economic" and "psychological" factors. They are denied education in secular fields that provide job skills, and taught that "questioning slavery is tantamount to questioning Islam". There is also a "grey area" or "a continuum" between slavery and freedom in Mauritania—referred to politely as the "vestiges of slavery"—where sharecroppers and workers are exploited by Beydane landowners and bosses. According to Ahmed Vall Ould Dine, of Mauritanian Human Rights Watch, "Slaves tend to develop very close relations with their masters; the freed ones, who are poor and have inherited nothing from their parents, chose to remain under the auspices of their ex-masters as they provide them with basic necessities of life."
Two academics, Ahmed Meiloud and Mohamed El Mokhtar Sidi Haiba, have criticized statements on slavery in Mauritania by anti-slavery organizations and writers for alleged exaggeration, lack of statistical sources, factual errors, and criticized one source (Charles Jacob) for alleged anti-Islamic motivation and a desire to "divert attention" away "from the atrocities committed by Israel".
The government of Mauritania (which is dominated by Beydanes) denies that slavery exists in the country. According to Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane, a political adviser to the African Union and a cofounder of the abolitionist group SOS Slaves, the Mauritanian government's "line" on slavery is: "Slavery no longer exists, and talk of it suggests manipulation by the West, an act of enmity toward Islam, or influence from the worldwide Jewish conspiracy."
Responding to accusations of human rights abuse, in 2012 the Mauritanian Minister of rural development, [Brahim Ould M'Bareck Ould Med El Moctar], stated:
I must tell you that in Mauritania, freedom is total: freedom of thought, equality – of all men and women of Mauritania... in all cases, especially with this government, this is in the past. There are probably former relationships – slavery relationships and familial relationships from old days and of the older generations, maybe, or descendants who wish to continue to be in relationships with descendants of their old masters, for familial reasons, or out of affinity, and maybe also for economic interests. But (slavery) is something that is totally finished. All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon no longer exists. And I believe that I can tell you that no one profits from this commerce.
In March 2013, the President established an agency to "combat slavery", known as the "National Agency to Fight against the Vestiges of Slavery, Integration, and Fight against Poverty". The director, Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, a Beydane, told New Yorker magazine author Alexis Okeowo that, "Slavery as an institution, as something accepted by society, does not exist" in Mauritania, and that his agency was working on a program to help farmers and others to build clinics and improve access to water.
Causes of persistence
Among the reasons given for the difficulty of ending slavery in Mauritania are:
- Many of the slaves are isolated by illiteracy, poverty, and geography, and do not know that life outside servitude is possible;
- The difficulty of enforcing any laws in the country's vast desert;
- Poverty that limits opportunities for slaves to support themselves if freed;
- Dependence on masters who provide food and clothing to slaves.
- Difficulty of "running away" and leaving families in large parts of the country that are desert.
- Belief that slavery is part of the natural order of this society.
- Belief in a "misguided interpretation of Islam", in which slaves are "told that their paradise is bound to their master and that if they do what the master tells them, they will go to heaven".
- Mauritanian laws, which place the burden of proof on the slave, require that a victim file a complaint before an investigation is launched, and that human rights organisations may not file a case on behalf of a victim, despite the fact that most slaves are illiterate.
Mauritanian antislavery organizations include:
- Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, (IRA-Mauritania) is led by Biram Dah Abeid
- Al'Hor الحر (translated as "the free").
- In'itaq إنعتاق (translated as "emancipation").
- SOS Esclaves (meaning "SOS Slaves" in French) aids slaves to escape from their masters, and petitions the government and the clergy to address the problem of slavery, but stops short of aggressively confronting authorities like IRA-Mauritania. SOS was co-founded by Boubacar Messaoud, a former slave who went on to study engineering and architecture in Mali and Moscow. As of 2014, he was in his late sixties and so, according to Messaoud, may represent an older generation. In 2011, Messaoud and Biram Dah Abeid held a hunger strike in a Nouakchott police station until the police put a slave owner in jail.
- Human rights in Mauritania
- Human trafficking in Mauritania
- Slavery in Africa
- Slavery in modern Africa
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