Despite the 1981 Decree which abolished slavery, the lack of positive
action to secure the release of slaves living and working for their
traditional masters has meant that many Mauritanians continue to
provide forced labour.
Virtually all cases of slavery in Mauritania concern individuals
whose ancestors were enslaved many generations ago. Birth continues
to impose slave status on different ethnic groups, whereby they
are viewed as slaves by some and as servants or family retainers
by others. They typically work as herders of livestock, agricultural
workers and domestic servants, but remain completely dependent on
their traditional masters to whom they pass virtually all the money
they earn or for whom they work directly in exchange for food and
Caste distinctions see some families in different ethnic groups
assigned to a "slave caste" whereby they are subjected
to a range of discriminatory practices, such as depriving them of
the right to leave their property to their children upon death -
a practice which keeps them on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
The authorities in Mauritania stress that slavery has been abolished.
While this is the case it should be noted that there is no penal
sanction for employing forced labour, as required by Article 25
of ILO Convention No.29 on Forced Labour, and the prohibition against
forced labour under the Labour Code needs to be extended to cover
all work relationships, even when they are not covered by a contract.
However, the central point of concern does not relate to the legal
status of slavery in Mauritania, but to whether forced labour and
servitude (what the Government refers to as "the vestiges of
slavery") have been abolished in practice.
Reports from an NGO based in Mauritania, SOS-Esclaves (SOS-Slaves),
clearly show that individuals continue to be subjected to slavery
and servitude. In its reports for 2000 and 2001, SOS-Esclaves cites
several cases illustrating how difficult it is for people to escape
from their traditional masters.
One case involved a 13-year-old girl who escaped from an encampment
where she and her mother lived and worked for a camel herder in
Tagant. She went to the town of Atar to stay with her grandmother,
but the police detained the girl and eventually returned her to
In May 2001, a human rights activist sent Anti-Slavery details
of a case in which a traditional master seized money that was being
sent to an enslaved family from abroad. When the family sought to
challenge this they were beaten up by the police.
An article in the Washington Post in October 2001, refers
to the case of Mohamed who moved to Senegal with his brother after
his family was freed from slavery.1 They
worked there for several years and saved money to start their own
business. However, when they returned to Mauritania their former
master tracked them down and forced them to hand over all the money
they had saved, claiming that everything they had belonged to him.
Their former master still exercised powers of ownership over them,
even though they were supposed to be free.
The cases cited above indicate that traditional masters are sometimes
able to count on the support of law enforcement agencies to assist
them in recapturing former slaves, in spite of the 1981 Decree.
SOS-Esclaves stresses that the documented cases represent the tip
of the iceberg as most people held in servitude will not overcome
the internalised set of values which makes people of slave descent
believe that they should remain living with, and working for, the
families which enslaved their parents or ancestors. Others submit
to their current exploitation because they see no alternative options
in terms of where they would live or work. In these circumstances
physical coercion is rarely needed to prevent people from leaving.
Pro-active work is also required on the part of the Government
to end both the economic dependency of such people on their masters,
and their psychological conditioning which may lead them to resign
themselves to a life of servitude. Measures also need to be taken
to prevent acts of discrimination against individuals or communities
that are still categorised by many Mauritanians as having slave
Although the Government established the Commissariat for Human
Rights, Poverty Alleviation and Integration in May 1999, this Commissariat
is not known to have initiated any action focused specifically on
slaves or people of slave descent. SOS-Esclaves has also noted that
the Commissariat has not responded to or taken action on the complaints
it has submitted relating to slavery.
Anti-Slavery is also very concerned by the Government's decision,
at the beginning of 2002, to ban the political party Action Pour
le Changement (Action for Change). Action for Change has many
Mauritanians descended from slaves among its members and supporters
and fielded candidates for the first time in the 2001 parliamentary
The head of Action for Change, Messaoud Boulkheir, was formerly
the leader of El Hor (Freedom) which campaigned in the 1970s
for an end to slavery in Mauritania, leading to its abolition in
1981. Messaoud Boulkheir has regularly spoken out about the continued
existence of slavery in Mauritania and Action for Change's party
platform refers specifically to slavery and "condemns the Government
for its silence and complicity in this phenomenon". This follows
the imprisonment in 1998 of four NGO workers, including the leader
of SOS-Esclaves, who were active in fighting slavery.
The current ban on Action for Change has the unfortunate effect
of reinforcing the impression that the Government is hostile to
those working to eradicate forced labour in Mauritania and promote
the interests of those descended from slaves.
In view of the above Anti-Slavery recommends that the Government
1. Invite the ILO to send a mission to clarify the factual situation,
as suggested by the Committee of Experts in their 2002 report.
2. Ensure that, subject to the exceptions admitted by ILO Convention
No.29, any situation where an individual who is forced to provide
a service for which they have not offered themselves of their own
free will is illegal and punishable as a penal offence.
3. Develop a national action plan to release and rehabilitate all
those held in conditions of forced labour or servitude. This plan
should include public information campaigns regarding the law, access
to education programmes and the provision of economic alternatives
to the victims.
1 Douglas Farah, "Despite legal ban, slavery
persists in Mauritania" Washington Post, 21 October 2001.