NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — In 2015, an astounding 35.8 million people live in a condition of modern slavery. According to a report published by the Global Slavery Index 2014, most of these slaves are concentrated in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and North Africa, which have 17.4, 5.6 and 2.2 million slaves, respectively.
However, despite the fact that the highest concentration of slaves per region lies in Southeast Asia, a 2014 study conducted by the anti-slavery campaign group Walk Free discovered that Mauritania—an otherwise unassuming country in West Africa—boasts the highest proportion of slaves relative to the overall population of any country in the world: with 4% out of population of 3.9 million (Uzbekistan and Haiti trail behind, with 3.97 and 2.3 percent of the population constituted by slaves).
Slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania in 1981, criminalized in 2007, and designated a crime against humanity in 2012. However, slavery has remained rampant throughout the country, and only one slave owner has ever been prosecuted since the practice was criminalized in 2007.
According to experts, slavery has remained an integral part of Mauritanian society because of its deeply ingrained role and function in Mauritanian social hierarchy. Mauritania, a country composed of a complex system of clans, is comprised of four main ethnic groups: the Arabs (white and black), and three non-Arab African groups: the Wolof, Fula, and Soninke. For most the of the country’s history, the Arabs and non-Arabs lived in a state of semi- or total conflict, with slavery naturally intertwined in the country’s larger issues of social inequality and systemic/institutionalized racism. Because slavery is a matter of hereditary tradition in Saharan and Sahel cultures, many children also continued to inherit “slave status” after 1981, when it was “officially” abolished.
Apart from societal factors, slavery in Mauritania has also historically played an extremely important role in the country’s economy. A nation that is constituted largely by the Saharan desert and by rural pastures, slaves have long been regarded as an essential labor force that take on crucial tasks such as shepherding, planting, plowing, and household chores.
Because of the practice’s deep roots in the country’s socioeconomic structure, authorities—following Mauritania’s independence from French colonial powers in 1980 and international pressure—choose to only “superficially” criminalize slavery in 1981. Beyond the superficial veneer, however, slavery continued to flourish as a rampant practice, with Mauritania’s first President, Moktar Ould Daddah, noting in his memoirs that the issue would simply evolve and adapt to societal change over time.
Experts also claim that since 1981, Mauritanian officials have frequently sided with slave owners rather than slaves in the few cases that have actually been brought to court. Human rights activists also note that Mauritanian officials, in the past, have shied away from explicitly referring to these defendants as “slaves,” referring to them instead as “non-paid” or “exploited & underage workers.”
However, the Mauritanian Parliament recently surprised everyone by passing a new anti-slavery law, which officially regards slavery as a “crime against humanity” and has doubled the prison sentence of slave owners from 10 to 20 years. Criminalizing ten forms of slavery (including controversial societal practices such as forced marriage and the practice of handing over a woman to another man without her consent after the death of her husband), the law also provides legal help for slaves wishing to take their case to court, and hopes to establish tribunals in each region in Mauritania where human rights groups can help defend slave clients.
In light of this new law, Vukasin Petrovic, director of Africa programs for Freedom House, stated, “expanding the definition of and increasing the penalties for acts of slavery is a major achievement by the Mauritanian government and a step towards eliminating the pervasive practice.” However, Petrovic added, “while this new law is a position development, the government should ensure that these measures are enforced, prioritize protection for victims, and commit to citizen education regarding these reforms and their rights under the law.”
Indeed, this is a sentiment that has been echoed by various human rights organizations, who argue that Mauritania’s harsher anti-slavery law—while historic—marks only the beginning of a long process of uprooting the practice’s deep seated roots in the country.
Nevertheless, activists argue that the law marks an important first achievement in enabling this process to begin to take place. Given the preferential treatment that slave owners were historically given in court, human rights groups hope that the anti-slavery law—which makes it clear that slave owners will be more harshly prosecuted—will help to encourage slaves who might have been wary of taking their cases to court in the past, to finally attempt to secure their freedom. Moreover, activists are also hopeful that once taken to trial, slaves will find verdicts increasingly granted in their favor, and their freedom—and their children’s freedom—increasingly, and rightfully, restored.