Traditional slavery in Mauritania

June 11, 2022

May 13, 2022. During 4 – 13 May 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, is visiting Nouakchott and Nouadhibou in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in West Africa to investigate and report on the persistence of descent-based slavery, as well as the social, economic and political situation of former slaves. He also investigated the existence of other forced labour practices, servile forms of marriage, and the worst forms of child labor.

At the end of the visit, the UN Special Rapporteur called on the authorities to take urgent measures to step up implementation of Mauritania’s anti-slavery legislation and to address practical, legal, and social obstacles for people affected by slavery to seek justice and achieve equality.

“I am grateful to the Government for welcoming my visit, and for the cooperation extended to my mandate by the highest levels of authorities, including the President of the country,” he said.

“I was encouraged by the President’s acknowledgement during our meeting that denial of slavery is not the right approach, and his stated commitment to ending slavery, bringing perpetrators to justice, and fostering the social and economic inclusion of former enslaved persons.”

“Since the last visit of my mandate in 2014, Mauritania has taken important steps to combat slavery and there is a greater willingness to discuss slavery issues openly,” he said.

The adoption of Law 2015-031 criminalizing slavery and slavery-like practices addressed many of the gaps in Mauritania’s previous anti-slavery legislation. I am also encouraged by efforts undertaken by the Government to raise awareness of the law among legal practitioners, judicial police, security forces, civil society, and the general public.”

Nevertheless, he cautioned that descent-based and contemporary forms of slavery continue to exist in Mauritania, within and among all of the country’s major ethnic groups as well as between certain groups.

“Chattel slavery persists in Mauritania, despite denial of the practice in some quarters,” he said.

“Enslaved persons, particularly women and children, are subject to violence and abuse, including sexual violence, and are treated as property. Caste-based slavery is also an issue, with persons from repressed castes who refute their slave status facing violent reprisals and denial of access to basic services by dominant castes.

“Child labour remains a concern, particularly the practice of forced begging, and forced labour practices are common in Mauritania’s informal sector, impacting migrants as well as Mauritanian nationals.”

Obokata observed that full enforcement of Mauritania’s anti-slavery legislation remained elusive, and called for redoubled efforts towards full implementation of the country’s anti-slavery legal framework and address deep-rooted social practices.

“The continued existence of slavery and other slavery-like practices in Mauritania regrettably demonstrates that relevant laws are not enforced in practice and that a social transformation and a change in the mindset of the country’s leaders is needed in order to fully recognize and address slavery instead of denying its existence,” he said.

“Further effort is needed to ensure slavery complaints are investigated and judged within a timely manner, that victims of slavery are made aware of their rights and able to effectively access complaint mechanisms, as well as given protection and assistance, and that penalties are fully applied.”

He also received reports that enslaved persons and their descendants faced challenges enrolling in Mauritania’s civil registry, a prerequisite for access to education, formal employment, and basic services.

“Without access to formal employment and education, victims of slavery and their children have no viable pathways out of slavery, and remain trapped in a vicious circle of dependence on their enslavers or exploitative forms of work,” he said. “It is imperative that the Government address these communities’ obstacles to civil registration.”

During his visit, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery met President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, His Excellency Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani, and the Prime Minister His Excellency Mohamed Ould Bilal Messoud, as well as other government officials. He also met with civil society, worker’s associations, the diplomatic community and the UN, as well as human rights defenders, victims of slavery, and migrants. He had meetings in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou.

The Special Rapporteur’s report on the visit will be presented to the Human Rights Council in September 2023.