Slavery: Ancient and Modern


A new 2013 Global Slavery Index has been published by the Walk Free Foundation, in which we read that Mauritania tops the list of countries where slavery is an issue, when ranked in proportion to population size. Many media outlets were quick to transform this into a headline, which has already blazed its trail through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

There are some important observations to consider when reading these headlines, which I want to highlight:

  • The index uses a broad definition of “modern slavery” which includes child marriage and human trafficking, including illegal immigration. In the case of Mauritania, what exists there, and is still being witnessed today, is descendant slavery, as found in several countries in the index, and which is anything BUT modern. The number of Mauritanian citizens being trafficked is so tiny it defies measurement, and while child marriage is legal under Sharia law, marriage itself is so popular that once again, the numbers are going to be incredibly difficult to determine with any measure of accuracy. Those cases of child marriage we do hear of are mostly in more remote, rural areas with scant statistical records.
  • The population of Mauritania has not been reported using an official census since 2000, and even then, the numbers were deliberately under-reported, as noted by the World Bank and the UN, the secondary sources used by this new index. All numbers for population for the past 13 years have been estimated and extrapolated from other data sources. These sources are studies which will also determine the scope of aid programs, a major source of income for successive, corrupt, governments of Mauritania. Therefore we must assume the numbers reported for those studies is impacted by the opportunistic greed of the ruling administration.
  • The percentage arrived at by the index is 4%. This is in stark contrast to the figure of 10% to 20% usually reported by NGOs and human rights organisations. No explanation is offered for this apparent discrepancy. Clearly, the government, which remains sternly in denial of the continued existence or practice of slavery in Mauritania, will consider this a major PR coup in its favour.
  • Hillary Clinton has noted that the new index is “not perfect” and therefore, we should expect to see changes to it as it develops over time.
Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed in land-grabs, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed under order of state officials, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

We must take the issue of slavery seriously, because it is widespread and damaging and goes against everything decent human beings hold dear. But we don’t need glossy reports or “world leaders” (see video below) moralising about the subject as much as we need to see real concrete plans about how this scourge is going to be eradicated, and sensible actions which offer practical help for the victims to regain a dignified independence as well as their liberty.


At the moment, it looks like the main concern about slavery as far as many states are concerned, is that the proceeds are part of the “grey economy,” and therefore those doing the enslaving are also avoiding paying tax. It would seem that governments are more comfortable with the notion of fostering the sprawling mass of aid and development organisations, and collecting income tax from their often very highly-paid executives, while the rest of the agencies’ funds are able to legitimately avoid standard company tax because they are registered charities.

With new, harsher penalties being announced by the UK for anyone found guilty of trafficking, there is a great deal of justifiable public concern for the fate of the victims in all this, which is not clear from the statements being issued. These concerns are echoed in every country where trafficking or slavery is a problem. In Mauritania, for example, “international pressure” has led to a succession of rules, laws and proclamations from the government of the time, paying lip-service to the exhortations of donor organisations and countries willing to invest or otherwise bring revenue into the state coffers, with humanitarian strings attached. Yet each time the regime has banned or outlawed the practice of slavery, it has led to groups of people being “freed” by their former owners out of panic and fear, rather than concern. This has created a group of socially isolated former slaves, cast out of a bad but familiar situation, into an even more extreme state of insecurity, with no food, shelter, or work, and lacking even a basic education.

How extreme? Bad enough that some of them were forced to seek shelter in the refugee camp built to house those displaced from the conflict in neighbouring Mali. What happened when they were supposedly discovered? The UNHCR refused to feed them, and stopped issuing food rations to the entire camp, provoking a riot during which the food stores were broken into and rations seized by angry, humiliated, hungry, people with nowhere else to go and no other choices. That camp has been open since January 2012, and those Mauritanians were there almost from the start, but they were initially useful in boosting numbers for fund-raising appeals and supplying dramatic subtext to help justify the deployment of French and other military forces in Mali. Now, they’re surplus to requirements. Ironically, it is against the law to be homeless in Mauritania, land of the nomad. Expelling these Mauritanians from the refugee camp will subject them to risk of arrest and possible imprisonment, and certainly to harassment.

Such groups are likely to be found in every country where slavery is a current issue, and several where it has supposedly been eliminated, although their situations will vary. They all need support, and it should be delivered with as much publicity and enthusiasm as the speeches and statements and statistics, if not more.


UNPO: UN Special Rapporteur Condemns Contemporary Slavery in #Mauritania


The UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery presides over a round table discussion and alerts to the persistence of slavery in Mauritania Photo :UNPO

A roundtable discussion on Contemporary Slavery in Mauritania was organised by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) on 10 October 2012 in the European Parliament, Brussels. The roundtable was presided by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Ms. Gulnara Shahinian, and the UNPO General Secretary, Marino Busdachin.

Representatives of Amnesty International, the International Labour Organisation, Anti–Slavery International, Society for Threatened Peoples and IRA Europe all participated in a fruitful discussion, during which they could share their perspectives on the phenomenon of Contemporary Slavery in Mauritania and ask questions to the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Shahinian.

During this working session, the slavery practices that are still widespread in Mauritania were discussed. The clandestine nature of this phenomenon, together with the fact that victims of slavery are not only systematically let down by the legal system in Mauritania but are also subjected to unfair trials, discrimination at different levels and even torture, were touched upon with Ms. Shahinian when she recalled her findings from her latest visit to Mauritania. Concern was expressed by all parties, with a poignant speech delivered by Abidine Merzough, President of the European Office of Initiative for the Abolition of Slavery in Mauritania and a Mauritanian himself.

The UN Special Rapporteur reiterated the importance of raising awareness and bringing forward initiatives to help guide the European Union and the international community. Ms. Shahinian drew attention to the Road Map which she is now working on, a project that has specific action points tailored to the eradication of slavery in Mauritania. Not only did the Special Rapporteur invite all present to comment on the blueprint, but a consensus to use this project as a tool to get the international community on board was also reached in the hope that it will be the precursor to a more definite and emphatic fight against Contemporary Slavery.

via UNPO

Call for support from #Mauritania anti- #slavery activists

3 Apr 2012 Biram Ould Obeid after release from prison


The Mauritanian Initiative pour la Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA-Mauritanie) welcomes the liberation of its president Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid and his colleagues and calls for the clearing of all charges.

Below is a press release published by IRA-Mauritanie:

Against a backdrop of sham popular demonstrations prodded by the executive power and the political class, majority and opposition alike, the IRA president, Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, and his colleagues have finally been released from their four month ordeal of illegal detention, physical abuse and deprivation of medical care and examinations on Monday 3 September 2012.

The quasi-totality of the political forces, usually from the slave-owning class, could hardly hide their collusion. They hushed up their disagreements for weeks to gather unitedly around one goal: the elimination of the IRA-Mauritanie and its president at all costs so as to clear the way for legitimizing slavery and its practices to reassure the people who relentlessly resort to it.

Regarding the liberation of its leader and its fellows, the IRA-Mauritanie would like to affirm the following:

1- To thank the political parties and the national personalities who came together in force to express  their positions of support for the defense of the president and his fellow prisoners with a view to preserving civil peace and national unity; the national, sub-regional and international  human rights organizations and the elected officials who stood up for the president and his friends; the scholars who sided with the IRA to enlighten an audience that had been fanaticized on purpose; the Western diplomatic missions accredited in Nouakchott and the Mauritanian Bar Association, all of whom played a decisive role in the liberation of all anti-slavery activists who had been subjected to the unjust discretion of their jailer.

2- Continues to denounce the judicial proceedings against its president and its fellow prisoners by the Mauritanian public prosecutor with extremely serious charges against them, carrying a two, five or thirty-year prison sentence or even the death penalty.

3- Calls on all Mauritanians and human rights activists around the world to rally behind us with a view to putting an end to these types of false iniquitous accusations that reek of political vengeance and malice.

4- Demands the clearing of all charges against Biram and his colleagues for crimes without foundation, as attested by the decision made by the criminal court at Nouakchott’s regional tribunal in front of which they appeared on 27 June 2012.

Nouakchott 9 September 2012

The communications commission



#Mauritania protests against slavery and military rule


Anti-slavery protesters demand release of jailed comrades 8 July 2012

Protesters gathered in the Mauritanian capital on Sunday demanding the release of seven activists who have been detained since April, and end to the country’s practice of slavery, news organisations and activists reported.

Human rights and civil society activists who had gathered for a march in the capital Nouakchott demanded justice and freedom for the activists arrested in April – they also called for the abolition of slavery in their country- and an end to what they described as ‘arbitrary imprisonment.’

The seven activists detained included human rights advocate and head of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionist Movement (IRA), Biram Ould Abeid. According to the Irish-based human rights organisation, Front Line Defenders, Abeid and nine other activists were arrested on 29 April after reportedly burning books condoning the practice of slavery a day earlier. Saidou Wane, an activist with The Movement for Justice and Equality in Mauritania (MJEM), a human rights organisation in Mauritania, told the Daily News Egypt that “the Arab Spring inspired a lot of activists in Mauritania and showed us everything is possible.”

The protests have been largely peaceful and have demanded reforms including an end to slavery which is still practised in the country. They also called for an end to government corruption. But peaceful protesters were met with violent crackdowns by security, Wane said.

Some news agencies reported the books to be Islamic texts. The United States-sponsored Magharabeia news site reported the books were Sunni Maliki books. Almost all Mauritanians follow the Sunni Maliki religious school of Islamic thought. MJEM said the books burned were Islamic books but not copies of the Holy Quran. Mauritania has been ruled by Islamic Shari’a law for decades, which bans the practice of burning religious texts.

The arrested remained in an unknown location for several weeks until they were sent to a prison on 29 May. Three of the activists were later released on the same day, Front Line Defenders reported. The organisation condemned the arrests and reiterated “its call on the Mauritanian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release and drop all charges against him and the other IRA members.”

February 25 Movement protest against military rule 10 July 2012

In late June, the activists were tried for threatening the country’s security. The court dismissed the case for “incompetence and procedural nullity,” according to MJEM. Despite the ruling, the activists remained in custody.

The population of Mauritania is approximately 3.5 million, 10 percent to 20 percent of which are believed to be living some form of slavery, according to news agency CNN. The number of slaves could therefore be as high as 680,000.

While the Mauritanian parliament passed a bill in 2007 making slavery illegal, news reports note that only one person has ever been successfully prosecuted. The struggle to end slavery in Mauritania started in the 1980s, and the most recent campaigns have been sparked by the series of uprisings that shook the Arab World. Mauritania witnessed massive protests on 25 February 2011 when demonstrators took to the streets demanding reforms. A core group of civil society activists later formed the apolitical February 25 Movement, and have continued the  protests calling for an end to military rule in Mauritania. Their most recent protest on 10 July was disrupted less than an hour after it started and 15 arrests were made.

Based on a report in the Daily News Egypt.

Show of support for jailed anti-slavery campaigner in #Mauritania


UPDATE: 6 May 2012: Protesters gathered outside the Ministry of Justice this morning to demand the released of Biram Ould Abeid

UPDATE: 5 May 2012 IRA campaign has released a video appealing for the release of Biram

Supporters of civil rights activist Biram Ould Abeid turned out on Friday 4 May 2012 to show their support and demand his freedom. Biram is the president of the anti-slavery campaign group IRA. He has been detained on charges of agitating public opinion against Islam for his televised burning last Friday of several books of jurisprudence because they included mention of slavery. He and several companions were arrested in a violent raid on his home on the evening of Saturday 28 April 2012 by police using tear gas.

Campaigning for his freedom is the expected and admirable thing to do, but my personal feeling is that Biram could be in danger if he is released, despite the fact that he already employs several bodyguards, because of receiving previous death threats.