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The Persistence of Slavery in Mauritania

By Madeline de Figueiredo

The prevalence of slavery in Mauritania is among the highest in the world. The efforts the nation has made in the past few decades to not only dismantle the institutionalized practice, but also criminalize it, remain largely unsuccessful. In 1981, by presidential decree, Mauritania became the last country to legally abolish slavery; however, this decree failed to enforce the practice’s termination through the judicial system. In response to the persistence of slavery, the government criminalized slaveholding in 2007. The legislative efforts have been largely superficial, done to appease foreign powers. The problem continues, however, due to the government's failure in implementation and enforcement, coupled with its suppression of the public abolition movement. 

The complexities of modern slavery in Mauritania make it challenging to legislate. The institutionalized practice is connected to race, ancestry, religion, occupational status, and language; it cannot just be reduced to a racial dichotomy. Mauritania’s matrilineal descent-based system of slavery is dictated by an occupational status connected to one’s ancestry. People are grouped into two main categories: Haratine and Bidhan. In an interview with Erin Pettigrew, professor of history and Arab crossroads studies at NYU Abu Dhabi, she elaborated that these categories “are inherited statuses that designate whether someone is genealogically seen as born-free and connected to Arab descent or born into a slave status as a Haratine.” In Mauritanian society, some Haratine become socially trapped into a de facto slavery system centered on domestic and agricultural labor. Slave labor plays an integrated role in the daily life of many rural households. Pettigrew explains, “whether or not [Haratines] are technically and legally free today, they still bear that stigma of being born into a family that carries that descent and carries that occupational identity.” The established social hierarchy outlines modern policies and legal obstacles that blatantly oppress the Haratine. 

The government’s failure to address this severe human rights abuse is two pronged, manifesting at an administrative level and a civil society level. Enforcement and administrative authorities, including the criminal justice system, largely fail to implement legislation intended to criminalize slaveholding. There are three institutions responsible for enforcing the 2007 Slavery Act: the police, the prosecutors, and the judiciary. While the police are the on-the-ground actors tasked with identifying criminality, instances of slavery are typically brought to the attention of authorities by external organizations, such as political parties and abolition groups. Despite the complaints filed, law enforcement officials frequently neglect to respond appropriately. Allegations are rarely followed by an investigation, and the police often fail to report the criminal allegations to the prosecutors. Furthermore, there are documented instances of police intimidating the Haratine claimants into silence. 

Sarah Mathewson, the Africa program manager at the nonprofit Anti-Slavery International, emphasizes this institutional failure at a policing level: “In many cases, the authorities, in particular the police, do not take action after reports of slavery are brought to their attention, often claiming that the site of slavery is inaccessible or too far away. If investigations take place, they are usually limited to interviewing the victims and alleged masters, and often bringing the two together, which places enormous pressure on vulnerable victims.” Furthermore, Mathewson explains how, when action is taken, government still manages to circumvent anti-slavery legislation. She says that “cases brought to the attention of the authorities are not charged as slavery crimes under the provision of the Anti-Slavery Law, but re-classified into ‘lesser’ charges, such as cases of work-related conflict or exploitation of minors.”

The bias of police negligence, rooted in Mauritania’s occupational social hierarchy, seeps into the secondary levels of the judicial process, too. The cases that successfully permeate the initial judicial phase, and are picked up by the prosecuting authorities, then face the implementation failures of the prosecutors: unsubstantiated dismissals of cases, information about the judicial process illegally withheld from the claimant, reliance on social stereotypes to diminish the credibility of the claimant, and delaying bureaucratic processes to suspend an ongoing investigation. When a case of reported slavery is brought before the prosecutors, it may be dismissed or closed without reasonable grounds to do so. Prosecutors are also legally obliged to facilitate reliable investigations and offer claimants alternatives in civil court proceedings if their cases are not accepted within the criminal court system. However, records indicate deliberate obstructions of justice at the hands of prosecutors who fail to ensure an appropriate investigation and don’t offer the claimants suitable information about their options to pursue their cases in civil court. 

Additionally, the social hierarchy between the Haratine and Bidhan extends to the courts, where the credibility of Bidhan witnesses heavily outweighs that of Haratine witnesses. Imbalances in testimony, whether intentional or otherwise, stack the odds against an already-negligent prosecution. 

Despite the significant obstacles throughout the judicial process, the rare case unexpectedly scales the steep peaks of bias to triumphantly reach the judiciary. But at this stage, too, the judiciary can delay, suspend, and close cases without reasonable grounds. When the three branches of the judicial process (police, prosecutors, and judiciary) combine tactics to hinder the enforcement of existing laws, the effect of the intra-governmental force propelled against implementation is a de facto negation of anti-slavery legislation. 

Since the Slavery Act was passed in 2007, only two prosecutions of slaveholders have been successful. Both are considered landmark cases in Mauritania. The paucity of judicial success reveals a lack of commitment to anti-slavery legislation on the part of the government. Beyond the legislative and judicial failures to achieve abolition, though, the state has also deliberately targeted efforts within civil society to address slavery. As the Mauritanian abolition movement expands, through political organizations such as the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolition Movement (IRA) and SOS-Esclaves, the government has made efforts to stifle the activists' growing influence. Groups that name anti-slavery as their core tenet—expressing dedication to defending the rights of enslaved persons, publicizing the reality of slavery in Mauritania, and demanding the government’s accountability in preserving basic human rights—have been outlawed or blocked from achieving legal legitimacy. Furthermore, the government has responded to these “illegitimate” groups’ expansion by imprisoning activist leaders and denouncing the actions of protesters. 

Perhaps most famously, Biram Dah Abeid, the 2013 winner of the U.N. Human Rights Prize and founder of the IRA, has been arrested while protesting three times in the past decade. During his most recent arrest, in 2012, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz called for his execution. Ultimately released on bail, Abeid’s experience as an abolition activist is representative of the persistent problem of slavery. The government publicly endorses abolition of slavery, promising to make great efforts to suppress the practice in any form. Yet, it is within the government institutions themselves that slavery is protected. The legitimate efforts made by nongovernmental entities to achieve abolition are constrained and punished at the hand of the government—a government that fails to implement and enforce the very legislation it claims to vigorously support.  

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Madeline de Figueiredo is a former research assistant at World Policy Institute currently studying history at the University of Chicago.

[Photo courtesy of Magharebia

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