The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has called on the Mauritanian authorities to cease their harassment, intimidation and ill-treatment of anti-slavery campaigners in the country and to remove the crime of apostasy from its national legislation.
The call came as part of the UN Human Rights Council’s conclusions on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Mauritania this week.
The UPR is a process of the Human Rights Council which involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. It provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and for other states and civil society to examine them on their records.
Drawing on a written submission the IHEU made to the UN ahead of its examination of Mauritania, Elizabeth O’Casey, director of advocacy for the IHEU, highlighted the treatment of anti-slavery activists in the country as of particular concern, whose rights to freedom of expression and assembly are being violated. She noted, “What is particularly disturbing in relation to these cases, is not only the complete lack of regard for the basic rights to expression, assembly and association, but that these individuals are seeking to exercise such rights in order to highlight and improve the rights-situation for enslaved people in Mauritania.”
O’Casey also raised the case of Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir. Whilst not an anti-slavery campaigner specifically, writer M’Khetir was jailed and sentenced to death for apostasy because he criticised the practice of slavery in the country, making reference to the role of Islamic teachings in its perpetuation. She called on the government of Mauritania to release him with immediate effect.
Anti-slavery campaigner and representative of IRA-Mauritania (an anti-slavery campaigning organisation, the IHEU has worked with for a number of years), Abedine Merzough, also spoke during the debate, drawing attention to the high level of racism in the country, remarking that black people are not even allowed to represent Mauritania abroad in sports competitions.
The Mauritanian representative, Cheikh Tourad Abdel Malick, Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Action of Mauritania, responded that he could not understand why NGOs insisted on talking about slavery in the country, when Mauritania has declared it a ‘crime against humanity’. With reference to M’Kheitir’s case, the representative said that M’Kheitir had been tried by a judge and it was nothing to do with him. The IHEU will continue to raise awareness on the case of M’Khetir.
Out of 200 recommendations, the Government of Mauritania accepted 136, rejected 58 and said it would look into six recommendations. The recommendation on the abolition of the death penalty and a number on slavery were not accepted.
Elizabeth O’Casey’s statement follows in full below:
International Humanist and Ethical Union
UN Human Rights Council, 31st Session (29th February – 24th March 2016)
Whilst we welcome Mauritania’s actions to help combat slavery [in the country] and to designate slavery and torture as crimes against humanity, we remain deeply concerned about the “long-standing and embedded nature of it in Mauritian society” and the great deal of work that still needs to be done.
In this intervention however, we would like to concentrate particularly on the grave situation for those seeking to highlight and criticise the ongoing practices of slavery; those who have suffered a history of harassment, intimidation and repression by the Mauritanian authorities.
An estimated 21 anti-slavery campaigners were arrested following the protests and solidarity rallies held in Mauritania at the end of 2014, and their headquarters closed down. The activists were held in different detention centres, without access to phones or visits from their families, and in many places, their conditions of detention did not comply with the minimum international standards.
A particularly urgent case is that of writer Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir, who in December 2014, was sentenced to death for “apostasy.” He had been arrested for publishing an article in which he highlighted the indentured servitude in Mauritanian society, often socially justified with reference to national cultural identity and in particular to Islamic tradition. M’Kheitir remains on death row and has been kept in solitary confinement since being charged.
What is particularly disturbing in relation to these cases, is not only the complete lack of regard for the basic rights to expression, assembly and association, but these individuals are seeking to exercise such rights in order to highlight and improve the rights-situation for enslaved people in Mauritania. The work of anti-slavery activists and the crucial role they play in holding the government to account in terms of its human rights obligations and commitments must be respected fully by the Mauritanian government
We call on it to cease its harassment, intimidation and ill-treatment of anti-slavery campaigners; and, crucially, to remove the crime of apostasy from national legislation and drop the wholly unjust charges against M’Kheitir and release him immediately.