Tim Fish Hodgson & Simphiwe Sidu in Nouakchott
Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, is a bustling city surrounded by an endless sea of sand. As a result, most locals —regardless of ethnicity — wear protective clothing, purchased in the city’s overflowing markets. Long, beautiful cloaks, often light blue or white and trimmed with gold, flow in the ever-present wind; heads are covered by turbans and hijabs.
But the city’s obvious beauty, and its apparent diversity, disguise a darker truth: that today’s Mauritania has one of the highest rates of slavery in the world. A local rights group has estimated that up to 18% of the population live as slaves.
This year, Nouakchott is also a temporary African diplomatic capital: an African Union summit is to be held here in July. But at a recent meeting of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, also in Nouakchott, the issue of slavery was not raised in public discussions. A communiqué issued by the commission also makes no mention of slavery at all. Will the African Union be prepared to take a public position on the issue, as it did when leaders strongly condemned reports of modern-day slavery in Libya last year?
‘A shame on all Mauritanians’
The scale of Mauritania’s slavery problem was highlighted in a forum of nongovernmental organisations held immediately prior to the rights commission meeting in May.
Slavery, as one activist put it, “is a result of a long tradition in Mauritania. It is the fruit of a very long historical practice.” (For security reasons, the activists quoted in this piece will remain anonymous.)
Generally, slavery and social discrimination continue to have a disproportionate impact on black Mauritanians, who have historically been enslaved by Arab-Berber Mauritanians in a practice that predates French colonialism. Both slaves and slaveholders are almost exclusively adherents to the Islamic faith.
Another activist, the leader of a predominantly female anti-slavery group, said: “Slavery is a widespread practice in all Mauritanian communities. It is not just one community in some rural area. It is a shame on all Mauritanians.”
She continued: “We cannot speak about Mauritania without speaking about slavery. Slaves are born into slavery. They have no rights to education, property or paid work. They are themselves mentally alienated. Mauritanian society tells them that paradise depends on their slave master. With this mentality we rape women, enslave and kill people.”
These abusive practices are also exported, she said: trafficking of Mauritanians and particularly Mauritanian women to countries such as Saudi Arabia is rife. Young women are recruited illegally to work as “domestic workers”.
“These women are ultimately badly treated and are often raped by their ‘employers’. Just 20 days ago, a woman named Leila came back from Saudi Arabia who had been repeatedly beaten and raped by her employer.”
This is not an isolated incident. Her organisation has a network of 256 such women, of which at least 20 were “burned, beaten, tortured and gang-raped in Saudi Arabia”. One woman was “raped by 25 persons in one such gang rape”.
Hear no evil, see no evil
Mauritania’s government denies that it has a slavery problem.
In 2007, the country passed its first law allowing for slaveholders to be prosecuted. This was a full 26 years after it first “abolished” slavery in 1981; at that stage it was the last country in the world to do so. Prosecutions against slaveholders only commenced after another law was passed in 2015, declaring slavery “a crime against humanity” and attempting to criminalise all forms of slavery.
International law is emphatically against slavery, having prohibited it at the 1926 Slavery Convention, which was detailed further by the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. Though Mauritania only acceded to these conventions in 1986, the prohibition of slavery is also a peremptory or absolute norm in international customary law. This means that the ban on slavery binds every country, without exception, regardless of which treaties they have acceded to.
At the nongovernmental forum, a tense debate simmered throughout between former slaves, anti-slavery activists and the government and government loyalists. During a panel discussion on slavery in Mauritania, a government representative repeated the government position: that the existence of slavery is exaggerated by those with vested political interests; and that government members have personally never experienced or witnessed slavery in the country.
One audience member — who stressed she was not an activist, nor politically affiliated, but simply an ordinary citizen — intervened to contradict the government line. “Slavery is everywhere in Mauritania and everyone knows it, experiences it and lives it. What the government has said here in this forum is not true, and you should all know that,” she said.
Tight restrictions on freedom of speech and political expression can make it difficult for anti-slavery activists to speak out publicly. Some of the local activists quoted above, for example, are banned from leaving Nouakchott, to prevent anti-slavery activism in rural areas. The government’s denial of the reality of slavery, they say, is itself a form of repression: if the existence of slavery is denied, anti-slavery activists can be painted as having an alternative agenda.
In April, restrictions on free speech were tightened further when Parliament passed legislation that makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and acts deemed “sacrilegious”.
Though blasphemy has long been criminalised in Mauritania, the draconian new penalty clearly strikes at the core of the ability of all Mauritanians to debate different views freely, even within Islamic communities.
The chilling effect of this law is felt in debates and discussions between Mauritanians on issues as varied as slavery, marriage and caste — exactly what the law aims to achieve. Falling foul of even the law’s lesser, vaguely defined offences such as “offending public indecency and Islamic values” or “breaching Allah’s prohibitions” can lead to two years in prison and hefty fines.
And the law is not merely a paper tiger. In 2014, a Mauritanian blogger posted an article online denouncing the manipulation of Islam to discriminate against his caste. He was sentenced to death for apostasy. Though a court later downgraded his punishment to a two-year sentence and a fine after recognising the blogger’s repentance, he remains behind bars — for the “crime” of blogging in defence of basic human rights. Mauritanian authorities claim that the blogger is in “administrative detention for his own safety”.
Punishment of such minor acts of resistance is not an aberration. It is the purpose of the law. In addition to the obvious manipulation of Islam for political purposes, the law is a clear violation of Mauritania’s obligations in terms of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the core charter of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. As one anti-slavery activist explained, this apparent contradiction is commonplace. Mauritania, he dryly noted, is a “champion in signing conventions and also [a] champion in violating these conventions”.
Something similar might be said about the African Union itself, which, in choosing to stage its summit in Nouakchott, risks undermining the very values of free speech and anti-slavery it claims to protect — unless leaders choose to add these issues to their agenda.
Tim Fish Hodgson is a legal adviser and Simphiwe Sidu is a legal consultant at the International Commission of Jurists