Advocacy statements

Arrest of anti-slavery activists in Mauritania

  • Date / 2016
  • Location / Mauritania
  • Relevant Institution / UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Item / Item 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights


International Humanist and Ethical Union

UN Human Rights Council, 33rd Session (13th September – 30th September 2016)

General Debate on Item 3

Speaker: Elizabeth O’Casey

We thank the working group on arbitrary detention for their report. We were pleased to read that Mauritania expressed interest in a follow-up visit to the country, especially given recent events.

A reminder: Between 30 June and 3 July, 13 anti-slavery activists were arrested following riots – which the government attributed to IRA-Mauritania (Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement) members without any proof. The 13 activists have been sentenced to between 3 and 15 years in prison following an irregular trial.[1] This follows years of arbitrary arrests detailed in previous written and oral statements.

The current developments are particularly worrying due to the intersection with another concern of a thematic report under Item 3: Contemporary forms of slavery. There are over 155,000 people trapped in modern slavery in Mauritania.[2] This makes it the country with the highest prevalence of slavery in the world. Despite outlawing slavery three times and making it a criminal offence in 2007, the Mauritanian Government has failed to genuinely tackle the problem.

And it is not just an unsavoury combination of arbitrary detention and contemporary forms of slavery at issue here, but violations of the right to freedom of expression, religion and belief also.

IRA-Mauritania leader, Biram Abeid was arrested and jailed for several months last year, for apostasy after burning legal texts, relied upon by authorities, because they contained interpretations of Islam that uphold and encourage slavery.[3]

Whilst the detainment of anti-racism campaigner and blogger, Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’kheitir[4], a man who has already spent years in jail and remains threatened with state-sanctioned execution for criticising the misuse of Islam to excuse slavery, continues despite his recanting.

The criminalisation of ‘apostasy’ violates international human rights laws as articulated in the ICCPR. General Comment 22 specifically addresses how anti-apostasy laws run counter to Article 18.[5]

We call for the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned anti-slavery activists; for the Mauritanian authorities to stop their current clampdown on the anti-slavery movement; and for the immediate scrapping of its apostasy law.


[1] http://unpo.org/article/17712

[2] 2016 Global Slavery Index

[3] http://ira-usa.org/anniversary-of-the-burning-of-malikite-law-books/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0440fvd

[4] http://iheu.org/death-sentence-upheld-against-mauritanian-blogger-for-insulting-islam/

[5] Human Rights Committee, General Comment 22, Article 18 (Forty-eighth session, 1993), §5

Suggested academic reference

'Arrest of anti-slavery activists in Mauritania', Humanists International

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