Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Long Shadow Of Slavery In Mauritania

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania's tradition of chattel slavery is back in the news this week.

A special report issued by Gulnara Shahinian, the first United Nations "Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery", reveals how little progress has been made in ending slavery within the borders of that West African nation.

When a new government came to power in 2007, there were attempts under President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi to pass legislation with sufficient leverage to finally, finally, start getting serious about breaking the chains of slavery in Mauritania. The light of that faint hope flickered in the storm of the country's 2008 military coup, and here we are a year later with the shame intact: people in Mauritania, from the day of their birth, continue to be other people's property. An estimated 20% of the people of Mauritania are considered things, not people...
... for they are slaves.

Against this background, the rulers of Mauritania are accused this week of perpetuating the cultural tradition chained to slavery itself: turning a blind eye to its existence.
Slavery in modern times has been documented in Mauritania by many local and foreign human rights groups and the UN for decades. Most Mauritanian governments, stemming from the military elite, have headed policies of denial regarding slavery, often criminalising organisations fighting slavery or speaking about it to foreign media.
Since the 2008 coup, however, civil society has again been limited in its freedom and the military government has shown little interest in fighting slavery and helping slaves to be freed.

The UN's Ms Shahinian confirms that slavery continues to be a problem. "In my visits to communities I met with people who told me that they had been victims of slavery practices such as serfdom and domestic servitude. These people had fled slavery and also told the stories of those they had left behind," she reports from her Mauritania visit.
The UN Special Rapporteur urged Mauritanian authorities to do more to address slavery. While the 2007 anti-slavery law was still in place, little is done to implement it, she noted between the lines. "In order for victims to be encouraged to come forward, I recommend that the 2007 slavery law include provisions that provide for victim assistance and socio-economic programmes for their reintegration into society," stressed Ms Shahinian.

Enslaved Mauritanians still have little incentives to come forward, even risking being sent back to their masters by local police.

Ms Shahinian also urged the military government to bring back civil society into the process to fight slavery, as done by the toppled government. "The national strategy to combat slavery should be developed by different stakeholders from the government, local and international NGOs, political parties, religious leaders, trade unions, UN agencies and the donor community," she urged.

Finally, Ms Shahinian found the 2007 law too vague in its definition of slavery, as many master-servant dependencies - often encompassing former slavery bonds - fell short of inclusion in the anti-slavery policy. "In order for the judiciary to effectively use this law, I would strongly recommend that the law be amended to contain a clearer definition of slavery and socio-economic programmes which would act as an incentive for victims to bring cases before the law," Ms Shahinian advised.
One of the abolitionist organizations active within Mauritania is the beleaguered SOS Esclaves. To understand a problem in macro, it's sometimes of service to examine it at a micro level. Towards this end, last year I translated a French television documentary I had found online, which followed members of SOS Esclaves in their quest to free a single Mauritanian slave. The sequential videos of that haunting documentary have since been taken offline, but the translations I made still stand on their own as a sad testament to the scale of the tragedy being confronted, the scope of the difficulty in bringing relief to even a single soul in torment, and the degree of faith required to persevere in the belief that there can be such things as happy endings to this eternal problem, given the cruel indifference that persists hand-in-hand with the shadow of slavery.

Freeing one Mauritanian slave, part 1.
Freeing one Mauritanian slave, part 2.
Freeing one Mauritanian slave, part 3.
Freeing one Mauritanian slave, part 4.

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