The slavery situation in Mauritania
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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.”
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