Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The black African origin of Haratines (‘Black Moors’) is beyond doubt. Their language, culture and identity are, however, Arab, the product of centuries of enslavement to Beydan masters. Beydan (‘White Moors’) are descended from Berber Arabs and black African groups from the Sahara. Beydan and Haritines can appear racially indistinct and both speak dialects of Hassaniyya related to Bedouin Arabic.
Moor society is traditionally divided on social and descent criteria. The slave community is divided into three levels: the total subject, the part slave, and the true Haratin. The government has long described all forms of slave as ‘haratine’ or ‘newly freed’, thus implying the end of slavery.
In post-colonial Mauritania, urbanization and migration to some extent broke down the slave system, and certain districts of the capital Nouakchott became a haven for escaped slaves. These escapees formed the basis of the emancipation movement El Hor (the free), formed in 1974. El Hor argued that emancipation was impossible without practical measures to enforce anti-slavery laws and provide former slaves with the means to gain economic independence. To this end, it called for land reform and encouraged Haratines to set up agricultural co-operatives. El Hor’s emphasis on social issues and its demand for redress and justice inevitably brought it into confrontation with the government. A substantial number of the movement’s leaders were arrested, tortured and many of them exiled at the end of the 1970s.
In January 1980, a military coup brought President Mohamad Khouna Ould Haidallah to power, whose government embarked on a policy of undermining the El Hor movement by appearing to satisfy its demands. The 1980 ‘abolition’ of slavery, which was accompanied by the co-option of some of El Hor’s spokespeople, was also prompted by the government’s desire to forestall any possible political links between the opposition and black opposition groups. This divide-and-rule tactic meant that El Hor, despite representing the largest population group, did not constitute a significant political force. Indeed many Haratines were responsible for attacks and discrimination against black Africans. In 1981, the Anti-Slavery Society (UK) estimated that there were around 100,000 people still enslaved, plus approximately 300,000 Haratines.
Into the 1990s, human rights groups accused the Mauritanian government of continuing to tolerate the persistence of some forms of slavery, particularly in the interior. A Commissariat for Human Rights, Poverty Alleviation and Integration was established in May 1999, but civil society organizations said that the Mauritanian government must do more to address the legacy of slavery as a form of caste and descent-based discrimination, and to strengthen enforcement of slavery-specific legislation, and legislation promoting the civil rights of former slaves. The government again moved to formally outlaw slavery in 2003, but a failure to enforce the legal prohibition led to a continuation of the practice.
Following March 2007 elections, new legislation criminalizing slavery in Mauritania was swiftly passed by the new parliament. While the new law was welcomed by campaigners, it was pointed out that as with previous attempts to introduce tougher punishments, much will depend on the authorities’ willingness to enforce the law if the practice is to be eradicated. Haratine activists view other legal measures such as land reform and the effective ability to sue former masters as critical to the emancipation of remaining slaves.
In November 2011, MRG supported the first successful prosecution under the 2007 anti-slavery legislation, in a case involving the enslavement of two young boys. The accused was given a two-year sentence and ordered to pay compensation to the children; their lawyer appealed on the grounds that the judgment was too lenient (under the 2007 law, the minimum sentence should have been five years’ imprisonment). The owner was released on bail after four months’ detention. After five years’ wait, the appeals court finally ruled in November 2016 that there would be no change in the prison sentence but did increase the fine.
MRG followed up four other cases of slavery through a Haratine lawyer in Mauritania. All the cases involved psychological or physical ill-treatment of the individuals. The backlog of cases in the courts presents one of the biggest obstacles in obtaining a final decision and compensation for the victims.
In May 2011 protests broke out against a new government census to systematize national identity documents, led by the movement “Touche pas ma nationalité” (Don’t touch my nationality). Critics argue the census will increase racial discrimination and deprive many Black Mauritanians of their citizenship. The census only recognizes four ethnic groups which can appear on the identity documents: Moorish, Soninké, Fulani and Wolof. It fails to mention the Haratines.
Under pressure from civil society and human rights organizations, in 2015 the government adopted a stronger law against slavery, repealing and replacing the 2007 legislation. In addition to declaring slavery a ‘crime against humanity’, the new legislation increased the penalties for the crime of slavery from 5 to 10 years in the former legislation to 10 to 20 years. It also defines in greater detail the elements that constitute slavery, the cession of persons, serfdom and debt bondage. It provides harsher penalties for officials who do not investigate cases of slavery and establishes aggravated penalties for public officers who commit acts of slavery. In line with civil society’s main recommendation, the new legislation grants civil party to human rights organizations, enabling them to press charges and pursue a case before the tribunals on behalf of the victims.
In December 2015, the government passed a decree establishing three Special Tribunals against slavery. They are based in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou and Nema. In May 2016, there was the first ever conviction by one of these tribunals (and the only second successful prosecution since the criminalization of slavery in 2007). The Special Tribunal of Nema convicted two slave-owners from a very influential and powerful tribe (the Ould Daoud family) to five years’ imprisonment, with one year to be served and four years suspended. The judge imposed a fine of 100,000 MRO (about US$ 285) and ordered 1 million MRO (about US$ 2900) in restitution to each of the two female victims. The amount of the compensation was later increased on appeal to 6 million MRO (about US$ 16,400).
In parallel, the Mauritanian authorities continued to show hostility to the anti-slavery movement. In 20 August 2015, a two year prison sentence was upheld on appeal against Biram Dah Abeid and Brahim Bilal Ramdhane – President and Vice-President of IRA Mauritania – and Djiby Sow – President of the NGO Kawtal – who had been arrested during a peaceful campaign against slavery and for land rights for people of slave descent. In May 2016, following over 18 months of imprisonment, the Supreme Court freed Biram Dah Abeid and Brahim Bilal; Djiby Sow had been released months earlier for medical treatment. The Supreme Court downgraded the charges to charges which carry a one-year sentence, and the activists were able to walk free because of the 18 months they had already served.
In August 2016, 13 members of the anti-slavery organization IRA-Mauritania were sentenced to between three and 15 years’ imprisonment due to their alleged involvement in a riot against forced evictions. After their transfer to a remote prison 700km from the capital city Nouakchott and reports of torture, a group of UN human rights experts issued a letter to the Mauritanian government in October 2016, expressing serious concern that the activists were being targeted for their anti-slavery advocacy, pointing to a ‘pattern of crackdown on dissent by the ruling party in a country in which one ethnic minority dominates the two other major ethnic groups’. Ten of the activists were released on appeal in November 2016, one was released a couple of months later and two remain in prison (as of June 2017) serving two years.
In March 2016 Mauritania ratified the Forced Labour Protocol which carries significant obligations to take effective measures to prevent forced labour and provide victims with protection and access to remedies.
Mauritania is consistently ranked as the worst place in the world for slavery, with tens of thousands still trapped in total servitude across the country. This practice, despite officially being criminalized, continues to be sustained by the systematic marginalization of Mauritania’s large Haratine population. The persistent failure of the government, security forces and other stakeholders to protect this group has left them exposed to widespread exploitation and dehumanization. The situation is especially precarious for Haratine women, who are discriminated against on account of both their gender and ethnicity.
Though slavery has been banned in Mauritania several times, the law has not been enforced and in reality the practice persists. In 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mutuma Ruteere, reported that an estimated 50 per cent of Haratines face de facto slavery, including as domestic servants and bonded labourers. Despite the adoption of a stronger anti-slavery law in 2015, there have been only two convictions to date and the sentences passed down by the Special Court were extremely lenient. Numerous obstacles remain. Article 36 also obliges the prosecutor to inform the plaintiff of his or her right to file a civil suit with the investigating judge. However, in many cases, slavery claims have been filed for months or even years without any clear response from the prosecutor or any information on the right to file civil suits. In the rare incidences in which slavery claims do go to trial, procedures and deadlines are regularly not respected. Unexplained delays in the procedures indicate an unwillingness to expose slaveholders to criminal liability.
In light of all these challenges, MRG and its Mauritanian partner, SOS-Esclaves, decided to take the Said and Yarg case (the first conviction for slavery crime in 2011, appealed by both parties and pending since) to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The hearing took place in October 2016 in Banjul. A couple of days later only, the Court of Appeal of Mauritania decided to schedule the appeal in the Said and Yarg case and upheld the first instance judgement. The master returned to prison to serve the rest of his two-year sentence. In December 2017, in a landmark legal ruling, the Committee determined that Mauritania has breached many of its obligations under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Besides requesting the provision of individual remedies for the two child victims, the Committee also called for Mauritania to make wide-reaching changes to national policy and practice to eliminate slavery and slavery-like practices.
Haratines, whether slaves or free, face ongoing discrimination and marginalization across Mauritanian society.Though the immediate abolition of slavery in Mauritania is a critical first step in reducing many of the worst rights abuses against Haratines, a wider process of social and institutional reform will also be required before their rights and security can be ensured. At present, these issues can only be addressed by a comprehensive and sustained process of social and institutional reform. However, authorities have consistently repressed civil society organizations, particularly IRA Mauritania, detaining and intimidating activists and members of the political opposition advocating for an end to slavery. This included Biram Dah Abeid, President of IRA Mauritania and an opposition politician who ran against Abdel Aziz in the 2014 elections; he was arrested with two others in January 2015 for their involvement in peaceful anti-slavery protests and sentenced to two years in prison. He was only released in May 2016 after 18 months’ imprisonment, having had his sentence commuted to a year.
Updated April 2018.