October 20, 2015

UNPO and IRA-Mauritania Raise Haratin Plight at UPR Pre-Session on Mauritania

On 8 October 2015, Abidine Merzough, European Coordinator of Initiative pour la Resurgence de la Mouvement Abolitioniste (IRA), a Mauritanian anti-slavery organisation and UNPO Member since 2011, spoke on behalf of the two organisations at the Pre-Session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Mauritania in Geneva. He gave the audience a full understanding of the trials faced, in particular, by the Haratin ethnic group, who, despite comprising approximately half of the Mauritanian population, are excluded from education and from political participation, and are frequently exploited as slaves.

Mr Merzough explained in detail the situation of the Haratin people. Originating from a caste-based system of social hierarchy, the word ‘haratin’ literally translates as ‘slave’. Though it is no longer the case that all Haratin are expected to work as slaves, many still do, and the rest remain subject to prejudice and discrimination. In her August 2010 report, former UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, pointed out that, ‘Haratin...were indentified as the ethnic group most at risk of enslavement and the multiple forms of discrimination resulting from the practice.’

Also present at the UPR pre-session were members of several other Mauritanian NGOs such as Boubacar Messaoud, President of SOS-Esclaves and lifelong anti-slavery activist, as well as the Presidents of Association Mauritanienne pour la Santé de la Mère et de l'Enfant (AMSME), and Organisation Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme et du Développement (OMDHD). 

The government presence at the session sadly suggests little in the way of progress towards agreement on the human rights situation in Mauritania. The representative of the government-sponsored Committee for Human Rights of Mauritania, Irabiha Abdel, also spoke at the hearing, making inaccurate claims about the government's progress with regards to human rights, and falsely claiming that her report was corroborated by data from 400 NGOs operating in the country, including SOS Esclaves. Mr Messaoud, the latter’s President, was firm in his refusal to accept this assertion.

Despite highly publicised changes to legislation slavery continues to be common in Mauritanian society, directly affecting more than 4% of the population, alongside problems such as child labour, human trafficking, and extreme poverty. For this reason it was vitally important to have Mr Merzough and the representatives of the other groups speak out to contradict the government’s narrative.

While in Geneva, Mr Merzough also had productive meetings, facilitated by UNPO, on the subject of slavery and the rights of the Haratin community with the Offices of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, as well as with the EU Delegation in Geneva.

The UPR is an instrument through which the 47 rotating members of the UN Human Rights Council monitor and inspect the human rights situation in all UN member states. The Pre-Sessions offer an opportunity for non-State stakeholders, including NGOs, to present their point of view on the human rights situation in countries under review before representatives of the States sitting on the Human Rights Council.