By Alain Faujas
Despite being illegal since 1981, slavery continues to be a persistent problem in Mauritania and the country is regularly criticised on this front by international organisations and NGOs.
Making matters worse, the country has never gathered reliable data on the lingering phenomenon, with Mauritanian and international NGOs estimating that there are between 43,000 and 800,000 enslaved persons in Mauritania out of a total population of around 4.4 million people.
In an interview, Ahmed Salem Bouhoubeyni, president of Mauritania’s human rights commission (Commission nationale des droits de l’homme – CNDH), tells us about his work to put an end to the controversy – one he describes as “unproductive” because of those who look the other way and others still who exaggerate the problem’s prevalence.
Once the president of the Mauritanian Bar Association and the radical opposition party Forum national pour la démocratie et l’unité, Bouhoubeyni’s latest project includes uniting relevant organisations around the slogan “Zero tolerance for slavery”. The country’s political establishment is paying ever-closer attention to the issue, as demonstrated by the government’s launch of the anti-poverty agency Taazour at the end of 2019.
What is the current situation regarding slavery in Mauritania?
Ahmed Salem Bouhoubeyni: To break the cycle of unproductive debate between those who deny that slavery exists here and those who exaggerate the phenomenon – with the latter running the risk of making unsubstantiated accusations their stock-in-trade – the CNDH began organising in late 2019 “human rights caravans” all over the country. The goal of this initiative was to alert communities and authorities about possible instances of slavery. We operated under the slogans “Zero tolerance for slavery” and “End slavery now”. We invited all relevant national and international organisations to send representatives to participate in our caravan trips. Several established organisations said yes to our invitation, including the anti-slavery groups Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste and SOS Esclaves, the NGO Le Flambeau de la liberté, Fondation Sahel and the German international cooperation agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). We also reached out to the diplomatic community. No one can cast doubt on our impartiality in our work to combat this crime against humanity.
What was the outcome of this initiative?
Past instances of slavery in Néma resulted in a trial in November 2019, during which 11 people were handed down harsh sentences. Two alleged instances were reported to the commission in Sélibaby, but they turned out to be child labour offences, not slavery. We didn’t find the 800,000 slaves some have been talking about. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any at all, but people need to stop saying that Mauritania has the most of any country.
Do you think Mauritania has been unfairly stigmatised where slavery is concerned?
Some of our neighbours have a bigger slavery problem than we do because the constitutional, legislative, regulatory and legal arsenal Mauritania has at its disposal to fight this crime is comprehensive. What’s more, we have dedicated anti-slavery courts, whereas in Mali, for instance, slavery is not even on the books as a criminal offence. And what else should we call Senegal’s 150,000 talibé children who beg on the streets? Our system clearly has its share of deficiencies, but we’re doing our best to remedy them.
When it comes to Mauritania’s various social groups, such as the Beidanes [“white Moors”], Haratins [descendants of slaves] and Black Mauritanians, has one of these groups been more impacted by slavery than others?
They are all affected.
How many cases are currently under investigation and in which regions?
We are doing everything in our power to make progress on around 23 ongoing cases in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, Sélibaby and Néma.
Are you also addressing what’s called “the after-effects of slavery”?
Slavery in and of itself is a harrowing experience, but on top of that the descendants of slaves have always had a harder time accessing social welfare and economic programmes. They are often deprived of education, access to water, jobs and loans. Some are even forced to “farm out” their children’s labour to make ends meet. We report the most severe cases we come across during our investigations to the official anti-poverty agency, Taazour, so that it can target its initiatives appropriately.
Are you working on making it easier for marginalised individuals to get an identity card?
In cooperation with the civil registry agency, we’ve established an alert system. We’ve informed the diaspora community [mainly Mauritanian refugees who went to Senegal after the Senegal-Mauritania conflict in the 1980s and 1990s] of its creation and it allows us to respond to any and all questions regarding civil registry applications to obtain proof of Mauritanian identity within 48 hours. Having official identification is a priority right in a constitutional state.
Your efforts are starting to gain traction with international fora, as the CNDH is now a member of the Geneva-based Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.
The Mauritanian government takes our advice, but we retain our independence. Thanks to our independence and action on the ground, as of 28 December we moved up from a “class B” associate member to a “class A” full member of this key international organisation, which means we now have speaking rights, voting rights and can be elected to its various bodies.
Tell us about the CNDH’s latest projects.
We’ve created a coalition that conducts its own investigations and draft reports on substantiated findings. It brings together Mauritania’s forum for human rights organisations, the Forum des organisations de défense des droits humains, and national human rights organisation the Association mauritanienne des droits de l’homme. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also provided us with technical support via training. We’ve asked Human Rights Watch, Anti-Slavery International and Amnesty International to join our coalition. We want NGOs to report any suspected instances of slavery to us, which we will investigate so that the authorities can bring swift justice to victims.