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The slavery situation in Mauritania

21st August 2012

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The Mauritanian Government does little to tackle slavery, and in some cases even lets it continue unhindered. It was one of the last nations to abolish slavery in 1981, ratified the ICCPR in 2004 and actually only criminalised the practice in 2007. To date, there has only been one conviction in the country for slavery in the country.

When one thinks of modern day slavery, one is inclined to think of clandestine gangs engaging in cross border human trafficking, typically to fuel the illicit sex industry. Fully institutionalised state supported slavery is seen as an anachronistic symbol of the past, coming before the modern age of human rights. This view is reinforced by the strong measures taken by the international community to show their commitment to end state sponsored slavery; demonstrated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

However the slavery situation in Mauritania flies in the face of this assumption, and it is truly shocking to see slavery permitted by the state thriving in 2012.

Mauritanian society operates within an entrenched caste system based on historical divisions. Typically those of Arab descent who are lighter skinned are the slave owners, and the darker skinned black Africans the slaves. This is a remnant of the trans-Sahara slave trade where Arabs would raid African villages and settle in the area with their newly acquired slaves, and can be traced back almost 2000 years, some estimate.

As expected, slave owners completely own their slaves and control their lives. The slave is bound to their master for life, unless they are given away as a gift or discharged. The children of slaves become slaves, and in practice many slave masters rape their slaves.

The most shocking part of this is the numbers held in slavery: repeated estimates put the figure at around 10-20% of the population.

The main reason for this terrible situation is that slavery is completely embedded into the society of Mauritania and has been practiced for generations. Because of this the nature of the slavery in Mauritania is quite different from the slavery seen in the 1800s. There the slavery was actively forced upon an unwilling population, and these slaves had to be physically restrained; here the slaves are born into slavery, they know nothing else and in a lot of cases just accept it. If there are any chains of slavery in Mauritania, they are mental, not physical.

“Many people in Mauritania see it as a natural and normal part of life, not as an aberration or even a real problem; instead, it is the right and ancient order of things,” says expert Kevin Bales.

This is something best expressed in the words of a former Mauritanian slave: “Chains are for the slave who has just become a slave, who has . . . just been brought across the Atlantic, but the multigenerational slave, the slave descending from many generations, he is a slave even in his own head. And he is totally submissive. He is ready to sacrifice himself, even, for his master. And, unfortunately, it’s this type of slavery that we have today this is the slavery American plantation owners dreamed of.”

This belief that slavery is part of the natural order is augmented by religion. In the more rural areas of Mauritania Imams often preach about the virtues of slavery and how entry to paradise depends on submission if one is a member of the group of slaves. Furthermore, despite being treated awfully, many in slavery understand that at least they are given some food and some shelter. With poverty rife in Mauritania (44% of the population live on $2 a day) if they were free none of these things would be guaranteed and life would be nearly impossible. This skews their feelings about their position, thinking perhaps slavery is a necessary evil.

But even the most entrenched of ideals can be changed over time; for example much of the world is moving from a strongly patriarchal society into one of equality for men and women. Yet there are many interlinking reasons why changing attitudes towards slavery in Mauritania will be a very difficult task.

The Government does little to tackle slavery, and in some cases even lets it continue unhindered. This creates a culture of impunity whereby the practice can go unchallenged by the only body with the power and resources to at least try to stop it. Instead of helping slavery complainants the authorities will try to silence them, as challenging slavery will be an attack on the powerful elite of the country which could threaten the government.

However, the situation is not hopeless.

There is growing awareness in Mauritania that slavery is not part of the natural order and that a life outside of slavery can exist. This is achieved with the help of groups such as SOS Slaves who make it their mission to 'rescue' willing slaves and help them survive outside of slavery.

But these internal developments need to be supplemented with external pressure on the international level. Mauritania will only make the effort to stop slavery if there are greater costs attracted to maintaining the status quo, and growing international awareness and pressure which threatens to paint Mauritania as a pariah state will do this.

There was a feeling in the past that the USA and France passed up vital opportunities to exert pressure on Mauritania regarding slavery, but there are some promising developments, led primarily by the UN.

Gulnara Shahinian, the UN’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, believes that we have reached a “turning point” because “this country has opened its door to discuss slavery with the UN.” What she rightly advocates is positive encouragement, which “will give the government and others more incentive to do better,” instead of shaming and isolating the country.

Helping Mauritania is definitely the way forward. In such a vast poverty stricken country any efforts to enforce anti-slavery laws are likely to be difficult, and so this sort of assistance is vital.

And what we must remember is that the human rights movement depends on incremental changes; no human rights violations can be expected to be cured instantly, and so giving positive encouragement to Mauritania and raising international awareness is the first crucial step in this incremental movement.

I shall leave you with the words of a former slave asked what she would like to say to the world about the situation in Mauritania. She said: ““I would ask them to help us to change our country.” The international community should heed these words.

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