Instead of ending slavery, Mauritania is harassing anti-slavery campaigners

  • Date / 17 March 2014

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has spoken out about slavery in Mauritania on several occasions at the United Nations. Mauritania remains the country with the highest prevalence of slavery in the world, and yet we still frequently hear reports of anti-slavery campaigners being harassed there.

IHEU have worked with anti-slavery group IRA Mauritaine and their award-winning activists at the UN HRC

IHEU have worked with anti-slavery group IRA Mauritaine and their award-winning activists at the UN HRC

After the recent arbitrary arrest of human rights defender, Cheikh Ould Vall, IHEU’s head of delegation, Elizabeth O’Casey has raised the issue of the blatant discrepancies between what Mauritania’s representatives are saying on the world stage and what is happening in Mauritania in terms of eradicating slavery and its treatment of anti-slavery campaigners. Her oral statement follows below:

United Nations Human Rights Council, 25th Session (3rd – 28th March 2014)
General Debate, item 2/3:  Report of the High Commissioner
Elizabeth O’Casey, Head of IHEU’S Delegation to the UNHRC


We thank the High Commissioner for her report, in which we note the mention of her office’s provision of advice to Mauritania on eradicating racial discrimination and promoting equality[1].

Regrettably, one persistent form of discrimination and inequality that persists in that country is slavery. Despite slavery being defined as a crime against humanity in the Mauritanian constitution[2], and recent efforts to address the problem, Mauritania has the world’s highest number of slaves per population[3].

The High Commissioner also noted the importance of protecting those individuals working to defend human rights. An arrest in Mauritania last month of an anti-slavery activist, Cheikh Ould Vall, on spurious grounds[4] provided a further instance in which Mauritania has failed in its asserted attempt to eradicate slavery, and also in its duty to implement the provisions of the ICCPR.

It has been reported that Cheikh has suffered various arbitrary arrests and extreme maltreatment when in prison[5]. Treatment of this kind of anti-slavery campaigners[6] and others[7] contradicts what Mauritania has claimed in this very forum; last autumn, the Mauritanian representative, Mr Ould Khattra, specifically noted that, in the context of freedom from slavery, freedom of opinion and political expression is guaranteed in Mauritania[8]. Clearly however, there is a stark contrast between such rhetoric at the UN and the reality on the ground in Mauritania.

Mr President, how long will the Government of Mauritania say one thing in Geneva whilst doing exactly the opposite with human rights defenders at home? How do its promises of eliminating slavery correlate with the fact that it insists on detaining anti-slavery campaigners? Whilst we welcome its legislative reforms, its concurrent abuse of the rights of those defending the enslaved, ensures Mauritania continues with its ignominious place at top of the list of countries with the highest prevalence of slavery in the world.


[1] A/HRC/25/19, §11

[2] CT13/035E: Report of Mauritania. See: http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B9C2E/(httpNewsByYear_en)/8EA20A793C8F9B90C1257C0C00417FE2?OpenDocument

[3] http://www.globalslaveryindex.org/country/mauritania/ and http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26513804. The Global Slavery Index 2013 defines slavery as the possession or control of people to deny freedom and exploit them for profit or sex, usually through violence, coercion or deception. The definition includes indentured servitude, forced marriage and the abduction of children to serve in wars.

[4] http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/25136 and http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/25225

[5] http://www.haratine.com/communique380.htm, email correspondence from Hamady Lehbouss Conseiller du président de IRA-Mauritanie

[6] e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jan/04/mauritania-slavery-campaigner-human-rights, http://magharebia.com/en_GB/articles/awi/newsbriefs/general/2013/10/02/newsbrief-04, https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/22572, http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/25136, https://www.change.org/petitions/tell-mauritania-to-free-imprisoned-anti-slavery-activists


[8] CT13/035E: Report of Mauritania. See: http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B9C2E/(httpNewsByYear_en)/8EA20A793C8F9B90C1257C0C00417FE2?OpenDocument

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