Julie Barrière is MRG’s Legal Programmes Assistant and reflects on the one year anniversary of the landmark judgement in a case regarding child slavery in Mauritania.
This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the Judgement rendered in the case of two brothers “Saïd and Yarg SALEM” by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC). This ground-breaking decision gave a major support for the victims of slavery in Mauritania for the application of the anti-slavery legislation which criminalised this inhuman and degrading treatment.
The story of “Saïd and Yarg”
Said Ould Salem and his brother Yarg, were born into slavery to a white Moor family named El Hassine, in Mauritania and started to work at a very early age. They managed to escape with the help of SOS-Esclave and IRA Mauritania in 2011.
It was the first domestic case where the slave-owner was prosecuted and condemned, however, to very lenient sentences. Nearly five years after an appeal was lodged, the brothers were still waiting for their hearing. With the support of Minority Rights Group (MRG), their case was brought before the ACERWC in 2016 which prompted a response from the Mauritanian authorities who listed the appeal hearing in November 2016. The Court of Appeal slightly increased the amount of compensation awarded to the boys but the accused sentences remained unchanged, two years suspended sentence, when the law requires 5 to 10 years for the crime of slavery. An appeal was subsequently lodged to the Supreme Court.
The scope of the decision
The ACERWC found that Mauritania’s authorities have failed to take adequate steps to prevent, investigate, prosecute, punish and remedy the widespread practice of slavery which particularly affects the state’s ethnic Haratine community, resulting in a situation of impunity. Ruling that Mauritania’s Anti-Slavery Law does not provide adequate protection against slavery in practice, it found the state to be in violation of its obligations to protect children’s rights under the Children’ Charter, including a failure to act in their best interest and protect them from discrimination, child labour, abuse and harmful cultural practices, as well as to provide for their survival and development, education, and leisure, recreation and cultural activities.
Looking back on this ambitious and promising decision one year on, it is unfortunate to realise that Mauritania has not taken it into account. We were hopeful that this ruling was going to have a positive bearing on the Said and Yarg ongoing appeal before the Mauritanian Supreme Court, and other criminal complaints of slavery which were still stagnating in the Mauritanian courts. However, the Supreme Court in the brothers’ case confirmed the Appeal Court’s very soft sentence and low compensation last May, in total contradiction with the ACERWC’s ruling. Recent decisions in two cases before the Special Court in Nema, where the accused was acquitted and the second’s case postponed, represent significant setbacks. Still today, criminal cases stagnate massively at the investigation phase, very few get to the prosecution or the judgement phase and the ones that do will see the accused be acquitted or not sentenced according to the provisions of the anti slavery law.
It is a worrying development for the protection of the most vulnerable such as children and women subjected to these inhuman living conditions. As Saïd put it and I quote “we’ve been waiting a long time, and our lives are very different. We are proud because we are free. We feel like we are people now […]” accessing justice and the true prosecution of slave owners is crucial to the construction of the victim life and rehabilitation into society, with the necessary official and legal recognition of their suffering. The Mauritanian government and the judiciary must actively collaborate and take positive actions to hold slaves’ masters accountable and to help the victims to access justice, to get fair compensations, freedom and dignity. The government should now work closely with civil society and the ACERWC to promote and support the implementation of the ACERWC’s ruling for the respect of every child and more generally, every individual subjected to these practices.
MRG’s representatives met with experts from the ACERWC a month ago to raise issues around the lack of implementation of the decision and were heard with lots of interest. Hopefully, the ACERWC will consider the recent setbacks and urge the Mauritanian government to take strong steps to implement the decision and to protect children form slavery.
MRG will continue to advocate and support local partners such as SOS-Esclaves in Mauritania in their struggle to eradicate slavery and to help the former victims.