The State Department’s 2013 Trafficking Report has raised fresh allegations of slavery in Mauritania. Almost twenty percent of Mauritanians are affected by slavery, [1] a practice that is especially difficult to eliminate due to state’s history of religious and ethnic discrimination. The history of slavery in Mauritania began when the elite white Arab Moors invaded, enslaved, and assimilated the sedentary black Moors, taking control of the country’s economy and sectors of the government, military and police. When the black Moors were freed by the 1905 colonial decree abolishing slavery, they were often referred to as Haratine, arising from the Arabic word for “freedom.”

Although the Mauritanian society perceives black Moors as “free,” many remain with white Moor masters, as generations of slavery have left some black Moors economically and psychologically dependent. According to Zekeria Denn of the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania, factors such as extreme poverty and misinterpretation of Islamic law allow such coercive relationships. Many who are still enslaved believe that Islam forbids breaking out of bondage, and that they are “divinely ordained” to be slaves. In urban centers, many work in exploitative domestic work environments in exchange for housing, medical services, and food. In rural areas, slavery persists among uneducated persons and those without marketable skills. Most Mauritanian slaves are mainly subjected to cattle herding and domestic work without any pay.

Before the official criminalization of slavery in 2007, Mauritania issued a national order abolishing slavery. However, according to a 2010 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, the order ultimately proved to be ineffective due to its vague language. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery Gulnara Shahinian emphasized in the report that the order did not criminalize slavery, lacked effective implementation mechanisms, and failed to address the practice’s root causes.

The 2007 slavery law became a turning point in Mauritania’s long history of slavery. Article 3 of the Act prohibits “discrimination, in any form, against a person alleged to be a slave,” and slavery occurs when “any person reduces another person or a person under their care or responsibility, to slavery or incites them to forfeit their liberty or dignity, for the purpose of enslaving them.” The offense is punishable by five to ten years of imprisonment and a fine of up USD $4,000. The Act also acknowledges and outlines different slavery-related offenses, including “appropriating goods, products or earnings resulting from slave labor, and prejudicing physical integrity or denying the child of a slave access to education.” Ramifications of and compensation for freed slaves are also provided in the form of social assistance and monetary compensation through criminal indictment of their owners.

The US Department of State reported that the Mauritanian government began to provide some antislavery training for administrative officials and judges, but such efforts have been hindered by poor funding and inadequate attention. In 2012, there were no known charges brought against alleged slave owners, and an estimated number of freed slaves was unavailable. Because the 2007 law requires persons living under slave conditions to file a complaint against the alleged slave owner, prosecution is very difficult. The law further prohibits NGOs from filing on behalf of illiterate or uneducated slaves. While aware of common illiteracy among slaves, the government has not yet facilitated a program to train individuals on filing complaints. In January 2013, two slavery cases were brought to the forefront by an NGO. Although on record the investigations are ongoing, the alleged perpetrators were released soon after their arrest for reasons that their actions did not amount to slavery. To date, only one person has been convicted of the crime of slavery.

Mauritania is a state party to international conventions directly relevant to the abolition of slavery. On November 17, 2004, the country ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 2 of the ICCPR advises ratifying countries to take adequate legislative measures to ensure their people’s rights are properly protected. Article 8 specifically prohibits the practice of slavery, slave trade and forced or compulsory labor. Article 10 recognizes the overall inherent dignity of all persons. As a high contracting party, Mauritania also ratified the Slavery Convention of 1926 back in June 6, 1986, acknowledging the importance of imposing penalties to those who facilitate slavery.

Mauritania has shown efforts to end the practice of slavery by ratifying international treaties and enacting national laws specifically tailored to combat slavery. Yet, there are few indications that Mauritania has taken effective policy actions to eliminate the practice or create support mechanisms for newly freed slaves.


[1] A reliable count of slaves in Mauritania is unavailable.