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Mauritania under review. Discrimination Exposed

14 June 2018

Camilla Taddei is MRG’s Legal Intern and recently traveled to Geneva to attend the meeting of the UN Committee Against All Forms of Discrimination (CERD).

With an astounding delay of 9 years, the Mauritanian government recently submitted its report related to the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination in the West African Islamic republic. In May 2018 the UN CERD Committee reviewed the country and its respective compliance and violations of the Convention. MRG participated with its partners SOS Esclaves and Anti-Slavery International.

In its report, the government listed all the improvements and progress made to combat discrimination in Mauritania. Whilst MRG welcomed the advances undertaken by the government, the reality is different from the official version. Slavery was only abolished in 1981, criminalised in 2007 and declared a crime against humanity in the Constitution in 2012. Discrepancy exists between the letter of the law and its spirit. Legally, slavery does not exist in the country, whereas what can be witnessed on the ground is completely different. Despite the ratification of most of the main human rights treaties, practice shows violations of many provisions, as MRG has often reported. Moreover, regardless of the legislation in place, the official discourse of the government and authorities is to deny the existence of slavery nowadays, with a mere mention of the consequences of this practice.

Discrimination is still rife in Mauritania. In particular, the Haratine minority continues to face descent-based discrimination. Women suffer from increased vulnerability, and their children are often unable to obtain national identity documents, as the requirements for them are almost impossible to meet. The Committee’s review of Mauritania took place a few days after the amendment of an article establishing the death penalty for the crime of apostasy was passed by the government, putting also anti-slavery activists at risk.

While working in MRG’s Legal Cases department, I further realized how law is a fundamental tool for the advancement of human rights, but sometimes it is either an insufficiently protective tool or a means used as a justification to block certain rights. These UN sessions are thus fundamental to push for further action, and MRG worked hard to counter the official government narrative through making statements, liaising with other local and international NGOs, and meeting with CERD experts and Special Procedures, independent experts mandated to report and advise on specific countries or topics.

Camilla (back row, left) with staff members from MRG, Anti-Slavery International, SOS Esclaves, Comité de Solidarité avec les Victimes des Violations des Droits Humaines en Mauritanie and Amnesty International

The first session we attended was a briefing session between CERD experts and NGOs – a meeting where organizations can make oral statements presenting various issues. Here, it was interesting to see how both sides of the divergent perspectives on slavery were represented. Attendees were witness to long accounts of human rights violations, testimonials of numerous cases of slavery and threats to human rights defenders. A handful of NGO representatives very clearly supported the official governmental discourse. They strategically spoke at different times to give the impression that they were different organizations sharing similar experiences. Some even reported that they had evidence of anti-slavery activists obliging women to declare themselves as slaves against their own will.

MRG and its partners were extremely pleased to see the Special Procedures and Committee’s Experts genuinely interested in listening to us and learning more about the current situation in the country. One of the main objectives of our work in Mauritania is to allow the local partners to enhance their cooperation and advocacy with UN Bodies, as demonstrated by SOS Esclaves. They share and witness the daily suffering of the Haratine community, and can provide transparent, well-evidenced first-hand information.

In my opinion, the human rights organizations were extremely well coordinated in providing CERD members with all the necessary evidence. Amongst them, there were also some widows who were victims of the mass expulsion and killings which took place in the late 1980s, who advocated for truth and against the impunity law. After almost 30 years, nothing is known about what happened to these men, nor where they may have been buried.

At the end of the review, the Committee gave precise recommendations to the Mauritanian state, which, if followed and applied, will be fundamental to the advancement of minority rights in the country. Key points include a call for amending the anti-discrimination law of January 2018, providing complete and reliable statistical data on slavery and minorities, as well as increasing the measures for Haratine’s integration within the society and protecting the activity of anti-slavery activists.

In a new move, the government will now be required to submit a report within one year from the release of CERD’s final recommendations. The state is now under closer inspection, and at MRG we will all continue to focus our lens on this unfolding story.

Photo: Photo with UN Desk Officer for Mauritania and Staff of the Special Rapporteur on Minorities