Mauritania refuses to give up slavery

US warned Mauritania’s ‘total failure’ on slavery should rule out trade benefits

US labour unions cite Mauritania’s unwillingness to act on slavery as Trump administration is urged to deny country duty-free exports

Descendants of Moorish slaves in Mauritania protest in Nouakchott against discrimination
Descendants of Moorish slaves in Mauritania protest in Nouakchott against discrimination. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The routine abuse of thousands of enslaved Mauritanians, including rape, beatings and unpaid labour, should prevent the African republic from receiving US trade benefits, American labour unions have said.

Mauritania, which has one of the highest rates of modern-day slavery in the world and has been roundly criticised for its poor human rights record, is currently on a list of countries that benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). The act, designed to promote the economic development of countries that can show they uphold human rights and meet labour standards, enables African countries to export goods duty-free to US markets.

The US trade union AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, this week called on the US trade representative to remove Mauritania from the roster of approved countries.

“The government of Mauritania routinely fails to conduct investigations into cases of slavery, rarely pursues prosecutions for those responsible for the practice and fails to ensure access to remedy or otherwise support victims,” the union wrote in a petition, adding that the state harasses and imprisons anti-slavery activists and will not publicly acknowledge the continued existence of slavery.

“This represents a total failure to take any meaningful steps to establish freedom from forced labour,” said the petition.

Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last country in the world to do so, but only made it a crime in 2007. Since then, campaigners say the government has passed a handful of inefficient reforms and failed to properly address the issue.

Although the union says it is unlikely the US will immediately remove Mauritania from the Agoa list, Celeste Drake, trade and globalisation policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, said the petition should “put Mauritania on watch”.

The petition adds to the mounting pressure facing the Mauritanian government. In June, the International Labor Organisation (ILO) warned that slavery continues “on a widespread basis, despite numerous discussions”. For the past three years, the country has been under review by the ILO over its failure to act.

Last year, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights concluded that Tadamoun, the agency set up to address the consequences of slavery and poverty in Mauritania, had taken “a very low profile” in tackling the problem.

Jeroen Beirnaert, human and trade union rights coordinator at the International Trade Union Confederation, which has supported the petition, said the government had done little to enforce its anti-slavery law. Beirnaert said there had been only two known slavery convictions, with the sentences handed out too lenient.

“It took decades to actually have a conviction let alone compensation for any victims,” he said. “One issue we have with the agency [Tadamoun] is that it doesn’t involve any of the former slaves. It’s run by the white Moor community there, and it focuses a lot on a poverty alleviation mandate and doesn’t really address the slavery issues.”

Sarah Mathewson, Africa programme manager at Anti-Slavery International, said the Mauritanian government is sensitive to criticism and that further bad publicity won’t be welcomed. “They do seem to take initiatives and actions against slavery and forced labour practices in response to [negative] publicity,” she said. “They’ll set up a commission or a new government agency or introduce a new law or policy.”

Mathewson added that such initiatives are never serious attempts to tackle the issue, but “window dressing” that distracts the international community.

The government is balancing demands for reform with the need to retain its grip on power, she said: “They also have to balance the pressures of their own power base and the social and economic privileges that slave ownership entails for them, and how intrinsically linked it is to their own hold on power.”


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