Mauritania is failing to eradicate slavery and forced labour

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“Our freedom, our dignity, will never be truly and fully achieved until there are no more slaves in this country.”

Taken out of context, these words seem to have come straight out of the darkest chapters of human history. They weren’t spoken in the 19th century, but just a few weeks ago, by Boubacar Mesaoud, a well-known human rights activist in Mauritania who has been fighting for decades to put an end to the scourge of slavery that continues to ravage his country.

Estimates of the number of people enslaved in Mauritania range from between 1.06 per cent and 20 per cent of the population of about four million inhabitants, but it is almost impossible to say just how many there are because it is a multi-faceted phenomenon, rooted in Mauritanian society.

Slavery in this desert land, bigger than France and the United Kingdom put together, persists almost exclusively within the black haratine community which, despite being the majority population group, lives under the yoke of the moorish arab-berber minority which controls all the levers of power: economic, political, religious and military.

Despite the official position of the government of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz – which claims that slavery disappeared at the same time as its official abolition in 1981, leaving just the “vestiges of slavery” – Equal Times had no problem meeting victims who were born and have lived as the ‘property’ of someone else.

These men and women told us their chilling stories, of torture, rape and abuse of all kinds committed by their “owners” with total impunity.

Another form of modern slavery – forced labour – is also rife in Mauritania. Exploiting the extreme poverty in which most Mauritanian’s still live, multinational companies and local businesses lure them with promises of a job and a decent salary in sectors such as domestic work (in Mauritania and in the Gulf countries with which it has partnerships), construction and fishing or agriculture. But ultimately these jobs are often carried out under coercion and in conditions that violate all the international treaties on workers’ rights ratified by Mauritania.

The growing gulf between ratification and effective implementation is regularly denounced by Mauritanian human rights defenders who demand that the justice system – among others – make real progress in condemning the people and the institutions responsible for these crimes and in making the victims feel that their suffering and their fight to free themselves from their oppressors has not been in vain.

This documentary is the outcome of two visits to Mauritania. Much of the work had to been done in secret, so as not to risk the physical safety of the people we met and to not attract the attention of the Mauritanian authorities, who refused to grant Equal Times the necessary filming rights to carry out its investigations in the country freely.

This story has been translated from French.