Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and Anti-Slavery International welcomed the adoption of a new anti-slavery law in Mauritania, but said that it will be worthless if it is not implemented.
Slavery has been criminalised in Mauritania since 2007, but only one conviction has so far been achieved, and the perpetrator not only was handed a sentence of less than the legal minimum provided by the law, but also walked free pending an appeal that has never taken place.
‘The real issue is the lack of political and judicial will to end slavery,’ said Carla Clarke, Senior Legal Officer at MRG.
‘Passing legislation is relatively simple. Implementing it however requires real commitment which we simply have not seen,’ she said. ‘Instead, we’ve seen the complete opposite, with numerous complaints brought under the existing 2007 law failing because of lack of adequate investigation by the authorities or cases simply languishing in the courts without any hearings.’
Sarah Mathewson, Africa Programme Co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International said, ‘There are positives in the new law, but if we see the same level of resistance to implementation as with the current law, then it will be worthless.’
The new law was passed last Thursday 13 August and replaces an earlier 2007 law which criminalised slavery in Mauritania for the first time. This law declares slavery a crime against humanity and raises the act of slavery from an ‘offence’ to a ‘crime’, raising sentences of imprisonment to 10 to 20 years. It also creates special tribunals in each region to address issues related to slavery, although the details of the new system have not been revealed.
Moreover, the law is lacking in provisions relating to protecting the rights of victims of slavery and takes no account of the amendments proposed by civil society and the UN Human Rights Council.
The most positive element of the new legislation is allowing third party human rights organisations to bring cases on behalf of victims. So far the victims have commonly faced pressure to drop their complaints as they remain economically and psychologically dependent on their masters and mistresses.
However, the new law was adopted during the same week that a draft law restricting the freedom of association of NGOs was being discussed, potentially threatening the ability of organisations campaigning against slavery to act on behalf of the victims.
In an example of the treatment such organisations commonly receive from the government, the leaders of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism (IRA) are currently in jail for campaigning against slavery, convicted of ‘belonging to an illegal organisation’, in spite of repeated attempts to submit applications for official registration without any response or explanation.
Sarah Mathewson said, ‘It is ironic that the Mauritanian government congratulates itself on passing the new anti-slavery law on the one hand but is prosecuting anti-slavery activists on spurious charges and is planning to quash whatever little freedom anti-slavery organisations have with the other.’