Slavery in Mauritania is NOT an invitation for US-backed intervention

Modern-day slavery in Mauritania

Modern-day slavery in Mauritania

Excellent to see CNN publish this detailed and in-depth report on modern-day slavery in Mauritania, researched covertly during a visit there in December 2011. But the extract below, from the end of the report invites a dangerous assumption: it could be interpreted as an excuse to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign nation. I believe this is not the right attitude at all. Pay attention, shine a light on injustice, give it airtime or column inches, raise the issues in international discussions, provide funding to appropriate non-government organisations created and staffed by local activists, but please, don’t assume that it is any other country’s responsibility to interfere. It would also help international anti-slavery activists considerably if the headline didn’t give the impression that Mauritania is the last and only place on earth where children and adults are subjected to slavery in its various forms. In fact, it is a pandemic affecting many countries worldwide.


From the CNN post:

“Help us to change our country”

Activists say the international community has done relatively little to pressure Mauritania to address slavery. “The French government and American government have had a lot of opportunities to help Mauritania step up and deal with this — and have pretty much squandered those opportunities,” says Kevin Bales, of Free the Slaves. People tend to focus on topics like child trafficking and sex slavery, says Sarah Mathewson, Africa program coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, rather than the old-world slavery in Mauritania.

The U.S. ambassador to Mauritania, Jo Ellen Powell, called slavery in the country “completely unacceptable and abhorrent” and said America is pressuring Mauritania to change. The nation should invest in the education of its children rather than “keeping them sweeping floors somewhere or herding goats,” she said. “Human capital development is something that’s very important to the Mauritanians and I hope that they get that connection.”

For a few weeks after returning home, I tried to block the most troubling images from my mind: haunting villages where kids eat sand; a slave owner who smiled while he told us about the free labor he gets from people with darker skin; and, most of all, the piercing eyes of a woman whose master left her infant in the sand to die.

Mauritania is a place of agonizing beauty, one that’s hard not to love and curse. Its people have lived with unfulfilled potential and broken promises for decades, since the country first tried to abolish slavery in 1905. But that could change, several activists told us, if Mauritania knew the rest of the world was watching.

The United Nations has proposed a number of changes the Mauritanian government could make to quicken the end of slavery. Among them: Pay lawyers to represent victims; allow international monitors into the country to conduct a full survey of slavery; and fund centers like the one SOS runs to rehabilitate slaves who have claimed their freedom.

It would help if a global public demanded these changes. “It’s a destitute country,” says Kevin Bales. “It needs a few friends in the world.”

Perhaps then women like Moulkheir and Selek’ha could find justice.

And Boubacar and Abdel could get their wish.

We asked the SOS founders how they will know when their fight against slavery in Mauritania is over — how they’ll know they have won. Both men had the same answer:

When a former slave becomes president.


6 thoughts on “Slavery in Mauritania is NOT an invitation for US-backed intervention

  1. Another post questions CNN’s sudden but superficial interest in #slavery:

    As a researcher in #Mauritania, I must say that I and another researcher here were both deeply troubled by the “hidden” agenda of these reporters. Conducting research in Mauritania is already difficult enough, with government officials very worried about the political nature of any American’s presence, but reporting like this only adds to Mauritanians’ fears about the “real” agenda of Americans roaming around in their country. And the question of what one can do? Here, I’m really at a loss. There are many local organizations working on this issue (SOS, l’IRA, etc.) so the best answer would be to get in touch with them and see what they advocate for action. The reality is that exploitative labor with inadequate pay, however one wants to call it, does exist in Mauritania and most often relies upon this group of Arabophone black Africans called “Hratine”.

    Full post here: tw:

  2. A new post from CNN on #slavery in #Mauritania with an official denial from the Minister of rural development, Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar, saying that “in Mauritania, freedom is total”. I contend that Mr el Moctar should really be referred to as a former minister since his term of office expired a few months ago.

    The comments on the post prompted me to post a lengthy response, which I have reproduced here:

    Slavery still exists in several countries, including Mauritania (I have published evidence of the latter in the past month) but is often presented to us under modern names like “human trafficking” or “child labor”. It is also important to remember that there are several different types of slavery, for example debt bondage.

    Slavery often goes hand in hand with racist practices but is not exclusively a race issue.
    It is possible to seek justification for certain forms of slavery by referring to scripture but it is not a religious issue per se.

    Slavery is most definitely an issue rooted in custom and practice and reinforced by inequality, poverty and lack of education, and should be treated with sensitivity for the victims, not sensationalized in the media or used for political interest.

    It would be appropriate for countries like the US, EU member states, Arab and African neighbors, the World Bank, IMF and other international bodies to stop funding and supporting the Mauritanian government unless and until they resolve issues such as the continuing practice of slavery in a meaningful way, for example with social welfare and rehabilitation programs. Simply saying it is outlawed does not work. Proof of this is evidenced by the fact that Mauritania has outlawed slavery several times. Criminalising slavery does not work unless there is an independent judiciary with clear guidelines on how to apply the law. In addition, the practice of detaining, torturing and jailing anti-slavery activists – which has also happened in recent months – must cease.

    However, since a legitimate form of government is an essential base from which to build the necessary changes, it is far more pressing at this moment that Mauritania return to a democratically elected form of government at the earliest opportunity. The October 2011 elections were indefinitely postponed and the only elected official in the entire administration is president Aziz. Everyone else is occupying their senatorial or parliamentary seat under false pretext and without a valid legal mandate, and with Aziz’ blessing.


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