Mauritania and Slavery

Mauritania made headlines last week when a UN investigator announced that slavery continues there.

A 2007 law criminalising slavery in the west African desert state is not being properly enforced and victims are not encouraged to come forward, U.N. rapporteur Gulnara Shahinian told a news conference.

“There are all forms of slavery in Mauritania. There is child labour, domestic labour, child marriages and human trafficking,” Shahinian said.

“Legislation is simply a statement on paper if it is not enforced,” she added, urging authorities to bolster the legislation with specific laws relating to labour practices, citizenship and immigration.

Local human rights groups estimate that 18 per cent of Mauritania’s population of about 3 million still live in slavery that has historical roots in the ownership by a ruling Arab-Berber elite of the indigenous black population.

Reports of slavery in Mauritania surface regularly, though as Wikipedia notes the 2007 ban was preceded by major anti-slavery decrees in 1905 and 1981, as well as other initiatives. The BBC wrote of continuing slavery in 2002 and 2004, and in 2007 noted criticisms that the new anti-slavery law did not “include contemporary aspects of slavery – such as forced marriage, indentured labour or debt bondage.”

Two major figures stand out when I look at the politics of slavery in Mauritania. The first is Boubacar Messaoud, founder of SOS Slaves and himself a son of slaves, who has been recognized around the world – and jailed inside Mauritania – for his activism.

The second is Messaoud Boulkheir, also born to slave parents, who made a strong showing in the presidential elections in 2007 and was elected President of the National Assembly afterwards. Prior to the elections this summer, the Telegraph said that Boulkheir’s candidacy had put “half a million African slaves…at the heart of Mauritania’s presidential election.”

Though Boulkheir’s flawed campaign proved unsuccessful, and Kal at The Moor Next Door warned that his supporters were unlikely to constitute a long-lasting political movement, perhaps between the campaign and the UN’s recent statements the slavery issue has become one Mauritania’s leadership cannot afford to ignore. But maybe I’m naive. I guess we’ll have to see how the regime in Nouakchott responds to the UN.

2 thoughts on “Mauritania and Slavery

  1. Pingback: Traditional slavery in the Sahel « Maghreb Politics Review

  2. Pingback: Further Perspectives on Slavery in Mauritania « Sahel Blog

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