IHEU silenced at UN for attempting to question the role of Islam in the persistence of slavery

  • post Type / Humanists International News
  • Date / 15 September 2010

It was just three years ago that the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour said “there can be no taboos in the Human Rights Council”. But there were then, and there still are today – as we learned this afternoon at a meeting to discuss slavery and forced labour in Brazil and Mauritania.

The Mauritanian ambassador, His Excellency Sheikh Ahmed Ould Zahave, who had been expected to outline his government’s measures to eliminate slavery, simply set out to explain the traditional, cultural and economic roots of this “division of labour”. His arguments would have been familiar to anyone who had heard Indian diplomats over the years seeking to justify the persistence of the caste system, while at the same time speaking as though it was in any case a thing of the past. 

Raheel Raza, speaking for IHEU during the question period, echoed the disappointment of many in the audience when she said:

   “You may recall that our organisation spoke on the issue of slavery in Mauritania at the last session of the Human Rights Council in June. Whilst welcoming the election of Mauritania to the Council, we suggested that it provided a golden opportunity for Mauritania to act more positively in the fight to eliminate slavery from its territory. There are still an estimated 600,000 slaves – let’s not mince words – living in captivity in that country.
    “We would suggest that regardless of social and cultural traditions, economic reality and the partition of labour that leads to the continuation of slavery, these do not justify the continuation of the practice. It is not possible to re-define slavery out of existence. This is not about semantics, it is about the denial of human rights to a vast number of people.
     “We look forward to seeing real progress on the ground in Mauritania”.

Raheel was thanked later by one of the panelists for saying what she could not have said.

But when another IHEU representative, Magali Prince, attempted to ask a question of the Mauritanian ambassador she was stopped by the chair, Karim Ghezraoui of the Office of the High Commission. Magali’s offence was that she had uttered the word ‘Islamic’.

Here is the question she was attempting to ask:

    “I have listened with great attention and been very moved by the overwhelming presentations on the status of slavery in Brazil. In contrast, we have had confirmation that the Mauritanian government still denies the existence of slavery in Mauritania. Even though Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, what we hear about it here in Europe regularly moves and shocks us. During the presentation, we heard not about of slavery in Mauritania, but of ‘sequels’ to slavery. Doesn’t  sequel mean: what comes after a situation has ceased to exist ?  Does His Excellency the Ambassador agree that religious support for the institution of slavery is a major factor in its persistence in his country? 

“An Amnesty International report dated May 20091, said that:
    ‘Justice is in the hands of religious Muslims. Mauritania is an Islamic Republic which (…applies the rules of Charia, more precisely the Malekit Muslim code which tolerates slavery and which no law can contradict : These religious Muslims provide flawless support to the slavery system’).

But as as she reached the words “Islamic Republic”, Magali was stopped by the chairman who objected : “We are not here to discuss religion, this is about slavery, please stick to the issue..”

Magali continued quoting the Amnesty statement and the chair immediately stopped her again and asked her to conclude her statement. She switched off her microphone saying “If I can’t finish making my statement I have nothing more to say”.

Roy Brown immediately rose from his seat, gathered his belongings together and, followed by the other four IHEU representatives, left the hall. On his way out the chair asked Roy to have the courtesy to stay and listen to the other speakers. Roy replied in a loud, clear voice: “We do not accept taboos, sir!”

In fact, the question that Magali was attempting to ask is particularly relevant to the persistence of slavery in Mauritania, just as it is to the persistence of the caste system in India.  It is only because it is justified by and enshrined in the Hindu religion that the caste system has managed to persist for over 3,000 years and into the modern age. The same it would seem is true of the role of Islam in the persistence of slavery in Mauritania.

By his intervention, the chairman could not have said more clearly that Islam was “guilty as charged”.


[1] Extract from http://www.amnesty-marseille.fr/spip.php?article185

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