Slavery Is Not Dead: Remaining Hurdles to Abolishing Slavery in Mauritania

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ostensibly eradicated slavery from the world in 1948 — and yet, slavery continues to abound in Mauritania, where large swaths of the Haratine minority are enslaved by the Arab-Berber majority.  

According to recent estimates, nearly twenty percent of the local population — one out of every two Haratines — is bound from birth to a life of forced labor without pay and with no hope of liberation.  Many are prescribed to labor deemed “dirty or degrading” by the Arab-Berbers; notably, many must slaughter animals for meat, work with waste, or engage in other taxing manual or domestic labor.  Haratine children must also partake in grueling labor, and many are trafficked or sold as child brides.

Critically, the Mauritanian government, under the leadership of Arab-Berber President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, purports to be a slavery-free nation.  Mauritania passed a hollow 2007 act classifying slavery as a “crime” punishable by a ten year sentence; however, repeated investigations by international bodies have concluded that the act, which requires the enslaved to self-report their abuse, has had no practical effect: indeed, no case had been successfully prosecuted under the act as of a 2010 report by the US State Department.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (center), an Arab-Berber, maintains that slavery does not exist within Mauritania’s borders, despite repeated contradictory evidence by international bodies. (Creative Commons license).

According to the president of the nation’s human rights commission, Ahmed Salem Bouhoubeyni, the state’s outright denial of the existence of slavery within its borders is a calculated move intended to hinder progressive action, simply by preventing productive debate around the subject from occuring.  Still, grassroots organizations, most notably the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), have begun to surreptitiously organize: in 2019, Bouhoubeyni and the IRA co-organized several “human rights caravans” across the country with the goal of providing citizens with a medium with which to report alleged instances of slavery.  A resulting trial of slavery in Néma convicted 11 individuals.

However, sweeping change as of yet is still unlikely.  The government, composed mainly of light-skinned Arab-Berbers, continues to classify the enslavement of the darker-skinned Haratines as merely demonstrative of the nation’s historical caste system.  This system, the government argues, is fundamental to the nation’s culture since it has existed since the eighth century (at which time, the light-skinned Moors enslaved neighboring black ethnic groups).  Beyond the outright colorism inherent to this rhetoric, this formulation is problematic in that it evokes a number of internationally-held cultural rights which conflict with those listed within the UDHR.  Historically, the UN has been hesitant to tackle cases in which a country’s wrongdoing is nevertheless consistent with its sincerely-held cultural beliefs; Mauritania’s framing of its slavery as a cultural rights thus hinders the rhetorical strength of the UN in this matter.

And yet, the most pervasive hurdle will likely be psychological: Mauritania has a prevailing belief that slavery is a preordained and natural consequence of society: “People think that God created them to be slaves.”

Brahim Bilal Ramdhane, a formerly-enslaved Mauritanian, speaking to Reuters.

There are also several practical hurdles to overcome: the nation’s sprawling desert makes systematic local enforcement of anti-slavery law a logistical challenge; and extreme poverty can both (1) severely limit a freed slave’s opportunities, preventing them from establishing a better life for their families and (2) make slavery more invisible to the untrained eye, since masters may be very poor themselves.  Global awareness is also limited, given that Mauritanian anti-slavery activists are “violently repressed,” according to Amnesty International.

And yet, the most pervasive hurdle will likely be psychological: Mauritania has a prevailing belief that slavery is a preordained and natural consequence of society.  “People think that God created them to be slaves,” formerly-enslaved Brahim Bilal Ramdhane told Reuters (insideAfrica labels these teachings by masters to the enslaved as an “abuse of faith”).  Consequently, many slaves do not actively seek freedom; they are “slaves, even in [their] own head” (see comments made by SOS Esclaves Mauritanie co-founder Boubacar Messaoud).  

Ultimately, true progress will likely prove to be piecemeal, and given the government’s resistance to international investigation and condemnation, necessary change may need to originate from within Mauritania’s borders. Fortunately, domestic abolitionist groups like the IRA and SOS Esclaves are gaining prominence; in order to continue to promote their invaluable work, a critical first step for the international community is thus to integrate a deeper awareness of modern-day slavery into the global public consciousness.

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