Exposing slavery in Mauritania
In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to make slavery illegal. Despite this change in the law, tens of thousands – mostly from the minority Haratine or Afro-Mauritanian groups – still live as bonded labourers, domestic servants or child brides. Estimates indicate that as many as 20% of the population is enslaved, with one in two Haratines forced to work on farms or in homes with no possibility of freedom, education or pay. However, the government denies the existence of slavery in Mauritania and anti-slavery activists are regularly harassed and detained.
The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA-Mauritania) works to eradicate slavery. It is the largest organisation of its kind in the country, with members across Mauritania who regularly mobilise to protest slavery and state-endorsed discrimination based on race, caste and gender.
Their founder and president, Biram Dah Abeid has been targeted several times for his work against the culture of impunity regarding slavery in Mauritania. In 2014 he was imprisoned for 18 months alongside his colleague on charges of “illegal assembly and rebellion”. In 2016, 13 other members of IRA-Mauritania were arrested and sentenced for participating in protests. This judicial harassment of members of IRA-Mauritania is part of a pattern of judicial harassment against human rights defenders in Mauritania.
The government refuses to authorise IRA-Mauritania as a legitimate NGO, restricting their ability to generate funds and advocate freely. Despite this hostility towards them, which makes operating extremely difficult, IRA-Mauritania’s rallies and occupations have secured several arrests of slave owners and subsequent freeing of slaves. Abeid believes the noise caused by these tactics has pushed many slave owners to release their slaves out of fear of being publicly exposed.
As human rights defenders at risk, IRA-Mauritania has received international attention and support and received several awards for their brave work such as the 2015 Human Rights Tulip Award and the 2016 James Lawson Award from the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. This has helped raise awareness of the issue among the international community. However, international anti-slavery activists and journalists attempting to enter the country are regularly denied entry or expelled, keeping the extent of the practice relatively hidden from view. Within the country, the fight against slavery in Mauritania is on-going, and IRA-Mauritania is at the forefront.