Ohio State University

Slavery and the Limitation of Human Rights in Mauritania by Jamie O’Neill @ the Ohio State University

Mauritania, or the Islamic Republic of Mauritania was the last country in the world to legally abolish slavery in 2007, however today a large portion of the Afro-Mauritanian population is still enslaved. Mauritania is very ethnically diverse because of its geographic location: the country separates the Maghreb (Arab) region of Africa from Western Africa. This has caused major class and race struggles among the people; the Arabs of the country have long considered the black Africans as lesser which has caused widespread black slavery.

The human rights abuses which take place in Mauritania are often ignored by world powers in favor of profiting from the country’s budding oil industry and their large quarries of iron. The cooperation from the Mauritanian president in the fight against Islamic terrorism and extremism is also reason the UN and US ignores his blatant disregard for human rights and civil liberties. The president has allowed UN and French military supervision in the country as long as neither powers interfere with his politics. In some ways, democracy is improving in Mauritania; more and more people are receiving access to the internet, that last election was overseen by the African Union and was declared free of fraud, there are many civil non-governmental groups, and there are many opposition parties that run for different political positions. This is all overshadowed by major problems in democracy that are only increasing over time. Even though more people have internet, only 28% of the population even has electricity. Mauritania is one of the world hubs for human trafficking and many Mauritanian girls are forced into domestic servitude, prostitution, and marriages. The country claims to have free and fair elections and yet whatever leader in power always wins over 80% of the vote. Every single president of Mauritania has eventually been overthrown by a military coup. The main reason that slavery rates have not gone done in Mauritania is because actually the law “requires slaves, most of whom are illiterate, to file their own legal complaint, and the government agency that can submit claims on them did not file any in 2014”.

Still today, black Africans are viewed as lesser by their Islamic counterparts which leads to the reasons why slavery is still rampant and accepted in Mauritania. As of 2014, 4% or 160,000 Mauritanians are enslaved, the extreme majority of them are black. Many Mauritanian people are anti-slavery however. Recently, many anti-slavery campaigners and peaceful protesters have been arrested or shot. The Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) is the main anti-slavery group and is headed and founded by Biram Dah Abeid. Abeid along with 9 other activists were arrested in November of 2014 for protesting and demanding for the arrest of a man who owned slaves (the man who owned the slaves was also arrested). Abeid was in jail for 3 months, the slave owner was in jail for 9 days. This was the first slave owner to ever be jailed in Mauritania, and while the slave law didn’t change, fear of arrests spread among slave owners causing the release of thousands of slaves.The limiting of civil protest and media is a sign of a decline in democracy, censorship in order to further a political agenda is innately undemocratic. 

This is a glaring sign of a lack of democracy in Mauritania, free civil speech and human rights are a large factor in determining the democratic values in the country. In the Human Rights Watch report on ethnicity and discrimination in the country, they detail the case of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir who was a Mauritanian blogger who negatively spoke of religion and the caste system in the country. In 2014, he was sentenced to death under the grounds of heresy and “apostasy”. Apostasy is defined as blasphemy against the local, state or governmental religion. The United Nations Human Rights Council did step in but the government claimed that Mkhaitir was arrested for his own safety and that the death penalty was not a thing they were considering. An appeals court in 2017 lessened his sentence to 2 years, but he had already served two years meaning he should have been released immediately (January 2017). However, he was not released and his whereabouts are currently unknown. There are still protests by the Arab people who demand for his death. Non-democratic states are often limited by outside world forces because being too undemocratic can cause worldwide pressure, but in Mauritania there is very little progress in human rights and slight UN intervention does not seem to help. The civil and peaceful protests against the arrests of anti-slavery or anti-government Mauritanians are largely ignored or immediately crushed. Civil disobedience can work but when a government is so repressing and the international community is so uninvolved, there can be very little change to democracy.

In June 2017, the Mauritanian Parliament adopted a new law that would supposedly “combat discrimination”, the laws states:

“Whoever encourages an incendiary discourse against the official rite of Islamic Republic of Mauritania shall be punished by one to five years in prison.”

This law could be interpreted in such a way that even peaceful protestors of Islam or slavery can be arrested. The law further limits civil, peaceful protest and it also limits the growth of possible democracy. While democracy is still not a common value in Mauritania, the mass violence against black Mauritanians has decreased; because violence has decreased, that does not mean democracy has increased. In comparing Maurtianian society today to that of the culture in the 1980s and 90s, there is a drastic difference. In the 1980s there was mass amounts of arrests of black military officers and any who opposed the societal advantage that the Arab-Mauritanians claimed. Today, more Afro-Mauritanians are free and have more civil liberties but the president and government are still repressing and more steps towards democracy should be taken. The slave issue in Mauritania completely limits the country’s chances for democracy, but with a complete abolition of slavery and caste system perhaps the country could turn not only into an anti-terrorism blockade but also a place of equality and human rights.

*Photo by CNN, Mohamed Yahya Abdel Wedoud “‘Facebook Generation’ continues Mauritania protests”, Creative Commons Zero license

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