Feb 23, 2018

Haratin: Human Rights Watch Publishes Report on Mauritanian Government’s Repressive Handling of Organizations Campaigning against Historical Abuses, Discrimination and Slavery

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published in February 2018 a detailed report on the very difficult conditions Mauritanian civil society organizations operate in. Mauritanian ethnic minorities such as the Haratins, or the Negro-Mauritanians, have lived historical injustices such as the infamous Passif Humanitaire period from 1989-1991, de facto slavery, discrimination and rights violations. Yet, victims  and organizations seeking justice and reparations face stringent legislations restraining their cause. A series of laws such as the 1964 Law on Associations or the 1993 Amnesty law prevent organizations to operate and exist legally without government authorization. Recent laws drafted to replace such 1964 law would still allow the government to deny establishment of associations deemed to “undermine national unity”. Additionally, two recent cases of speech repression against those who voiced criticism against the government are either imprisoned or under judicial control. This report also contains letter exchanges with the Interior Minister of Mauritania, as well as recommendations to the Mauritanian Government.


Read the full report Ethnicity, Discrimination, and Other Red Lines Repression of Human Rights Defenders in Mauritania 

Below is the summary of the report, from the report itself:

Mauritania’s population is quite heterogenous; questions of caste and ethnicity lie at the source of many of the country’s most deep-rooted and sensitive human rights problems.

This report examines how Mauritanian authorities treat the organizations that campaign on issues of ethnic and caste discrimination, slavery and its legacy, and grave abuses of the past that targeted particular ethnic groups. It measures the extent to which they are free to express themselves, assemble, and associate with one another, and the repressive and restrictive measures that they face. The latter includes laws and policies used to deny associations legal status, curtail their activities, and in some cases, imprison their members. The report also profiles two prominent cases of Mauritanians prosecuted for denouncing discrimination and past atrocities, cases that illustrate how harsh the punishment can be for raising these delicate issues.

Senior members of the government who met a visiting Human Rights Watch delegation in March 2017 pointed to the thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) registered in the country as evidence of the vibrancy of domestic civil society and of the authorities’ respect for human rights. “There are no restrictions on civil society or its activities so long as their conduct and expression are consistent with the objective legal and procedural framework,” Justice Minister Brahim Ould Daddah later wrote to Human Rights Watch (see Appendix II).

The cases assembled in this report belie these claims of tolerance and reveal the limits to dissent. One instrument of repression is the Law on Associations, a 1964 law that requires groups to obtain authorization from the Ministry of Interior to exist legally, and that gives the ministry broad grounds to refuse such authorization or to withdraw it from groups it disfavors. According to that law, grounds for refusal include engaging in “anti-national propaganda” or “exercis[ing] an unwelcome influence on the minds of the people.”

Unrecognized associations are able to operate within limits but encounter substantial obstacles and risks. For example, hotels and public venues generally refuse to let them rent halls for events, third-party government donors such as the European Union refrain from funding them, and activists have sometimes faced prison time merely for membership.

In 2016, the Council of Ministers approved draft legislation that would replace the 1964 law. If adopted, the draft would prohibit the establishment of any association whose activities “undermine national unity.” Already, Mauritanian officials have used this ground to justify their obstruction of the activities of individuals and associations, citing article 1 of the Constitution, which enshrines the principle of non-discrimination with regard to origin and race and prohibits “propaganda of racial or ethnic character.”

Mauritania’s ethnic diversity reflects the country’s geographical location, bridging the Maghreb and sub-Saharan West Africa. The population consists of three main ethnic groups, though important distinctions and subgroups nuance each. The first two of these groups, which together form about 70 percent of the population, speak the local dialect of Arabic known as Hassaniya. The first group of Hassaniya speakers are known as Beidans, descended from Arab and Berber conquerors of the country. Haratines are the second and larger group of Hassaniya speakers. They are composed mostly of darker-skinned former slaves and their descendants. The third population group is often referred to as Afro- Mauritanians or négro-mauritaniens and is comprised of several ethnic groups whose native languages are African rather than Arabic.

Broadly speaking, Haratine activists tend to focus on the issue of slavery and its aftereffects, which include forms of extreme servitude, poverty, exclusion, and inadequate state efforts to address these problems. For négro-mauritaniens, a primary concern is what has become known as the Passif Humanitaire, a euphemistic term for the state-sponsored assault on members of their population between 1989 and 1991 that included summary executions, expulsions to Senegal, land expropriations, and patterns of discrimination and exclusion since then. Many Haratines and négro-mauritaniens find common cause for complaint in an ongoing national process, launched in 2011, of formally registering Mauritania’s citizens, which some charge favors the country’s Beidans, who dominate Mauritania’s political and economic life. The government denies that the registration process is discriminatory.

The international human rights treaties that Mauritania has ratified, the domestic laws that it has adopted to protect human rights, its engagement with the mechanisms and special procedures of the United Nations and African human rights system, and the frequent, though not unfettered, access it has granted international rights groups, suggest a commitment by Mauritanian authorities to meet their human rights obligations and welcome scrutiny. Human Rights Watch encountered no obstacles during its two research visits to Mauritania in 2017 and was granted the government meetings it requested.

The Passif Humanitaire and Victims’ Groups

The Mauritanian authorities acknowledge in a vague and general fashion that state agents committed grave abuses during the Passif Humanitaire. However, they maintain that they have adequately delivered justice and reparations to the victims, pursuant to a 1993 amnesty law, measures taken since then to compensate victims and survivors, and a gesture of healing performed by the Mauritanian president.

Victims’ advocacy groups that continue to denounce the amnesty law, which granted immunity to perpetrators of any grave human rights violations committed during the Passif Humanitaire, and that demand more in terms of accountability, compensation, and rehabilitation, face restrictions on their activities. Leaders of the Collective of Victims of the Repression (Le Collectif des victimes de la répression, Covire) and the Collective of Widows of the Military and Civilian Victims of the Events of 1989-1991 (Le Collectif des veuves des victimes militaires et civiles des événements de 1989 – 1991) told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have repeatedly obstructed their efforts to commemorate the massacres, executions, and forced disappearance perpetrated during that period by denying them the permission they must obtain to hold events or by breaking up their demonstrations.

Free Expression Cases

Two recent prosecutions of speech offenses illustrate the heavy repression authorities are willing to use to punish those who speak critically about discrimination within Mauritanian society.

A Mauritanian blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, has been imprisoned since January 2014. In December of that year, a lower court convicted him of apostasy and sentenced him to death, a punishment upheld on appeal. After the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, an appeals court on November 9, 2017, reduced his sentence to two years in prison, which he had already served, and a fine. The prosecutor has appealed this verdict, and as of November 25, 2017, Mkhaitir remained apparently in custody, his whereabouts unknown. The offense of Mkhaitir, who comes from a lower caste known as the lem’almin لمعلمين†(les forgerons, or blacksmiths), was to have penned an article criticizing fellow Mauritanians who, he said, cited examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad to justify racial and caste discrimination today.

Oumar Ould Beibacar, who retired as a colonel from the Garde Nationale in July 2015, has for two years been under judicial control and facing charges under the Counterterrorism law, solely for giving a speech in November 2015 denouncing the authorities’ response to the atrocities committed during the Passif Humanitaire. Beibacar said that the harsh repercussions he faced are due as much to the messenger as the message: he is one of the rare Beidans and, even rarer, a retired military officer, who demands that authorities do more to recognize and make amends for the summary executions a quarter century ago of fellow officers who were négro-mauritanien.

Parliament on June 9, 2017, adopted a new law to combat discrimination that contains provisions that could be used to imprison persons for nonviolent speech. Article 10 states: “Whoever encourages an incendiary discourse against the official rite of Islamic Republic of Mauritania shall be punished by one to five years in prison.” Such a vague standard could be applied to persons who peacefully criticize Islam as it is practiced in Mauritania, something that some activists opposing slavery and discrimination have done.

Anti-slavery Groups

Mauritania outlawed slavery only in 1981, criminalized the practice in 2007, and created specialized courts in 2015 to prosecute slavery cases. Authorities claim success in eradicating slavery and say that today the challenge is to address the lasting socioeconomic effects, or “legacy” of slavery.

Both of Mauritania’s main anti-slavery nongovernmental associations, SOS-Esclaves and the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), challenge this official discourse by affirming that slavery continues to be practiced, though differ in their approaches. The older SOS Esclaves has legal status and employs a more moderate discourse. The more aggressive IRA, founded in 2008, has been denied legal recognition. Its president, Biram Bah Abeid, maintains that slavery, far from being eradicated, affects 20 percent of Mauritania’s population; he also denounces the under representation of Haratines and other blacks in senior government positions. IRA, while stating that it adheres to a policy of nonviolence, often employs provocative language and tactics. Its communiqués, for example, refer to the present government as “racist and enslaving.” In 2012, Biram publicly burned books of Islamic jurisprudence that he said were being interpreted in Mauritania to justify slavery.

While authorities often do not respond directly to the strident declarations that IRA makes both at home and during Biram’s frequent foreign engagements, they have pursued repressive policies toward Biram and IRA that severely hamper its activities, while allowing it to function at some level. Authorities have refused to process IRA’s application for formal registration, block their efforts to sponsor conferences and workshops, and in 2016 dissolved a development NGO that was allowing IRA members to use its offices. The courts have twice imprisoned IRA leaders since 2015 in unfair trials; two members are serving prison terms as of this writing. In explaining the refusal to legalize IRA, Mauritania’s interior and justice ministers both told Human Rights Watch that IRA “divides national unity.” The former added that IRA had to choose between being a civil society organization and a political party, but could not be both: in 2014, Biram ran as a presidential candidate and came in second to the incumbent, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Obstacles to Obtaining Full Citizenship

In January 2008, the governments of Mauritania and Senegal began the formal process of repatriating some of the estimated 60,000 Mauritanians whom authorities expelled or who fled to Senegal in 1989 and 1990 during the Passif Humanitaire. In May 2011, Mauritanian authorities launched a nationwide census aimed at registering the country’s population in a biometric database, systematizing national ID cards and finalizing electoral lists.

Touche Pas à Ma Nationalité (TPMN) was founded in response to the 2011 census and subsequent national registration process, which TPMN says is aimed at undermining the citizenship rights of black Mauritanians. Government ministers told Human Rights Watch that authorities had refused legal recognition to TPMN because it, like IRA, “divides national unity.” They called “baseless” TPMN’s claim that the registration process is ethnically discriminatory. Human Rights Watch has not examined the merits of this claim. However, the UN special rapporteurs on racism and extreme poverty have described the ongoing registration process as discriminating against Haratines and négro-mauritaniens.

When the TPMN first organized rallies to protest the new registration process in 2011, authorities sometimes dispersed them with force, TPMN leaders said, causing injuries and the death by gunfire of one young protester in the town of Magama on September 27, 2011. Since then, TPMN’s leaders say, they have not tried to organize mass rallies, but have been able to conduct smaller-scale protests such as sit-ins.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons