United Nations Commission on Human Rights
Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery
27th Session
Geneva, 27-31 May 2002

Forced labour in Mauritania

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 lodgings.

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 the encampment.

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 status.

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 elections.

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 of Mauritania:

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.