September 21, 2011


To view UNPO's Haratin Briefing Note, please click on the image to download (pdf. 0.2mb):

Status: Largest minority group in Mauritania and among the most economically and politically marginalised.

Issue: Slavery

Population: 40% half of which are in de facto slavery.

Language: Arabic (official language in Mauritania); Hassaniyya (language used by the Haratin; a hybrid of Arabic and Berber), Wolof, Soniké, Pulaar and French (national languages in Mauritania).

Religion: Sunni Islam, with elements of Sufism.


UNPO Representation: Initiative de Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste en Mauritanie (IRA). Admitted 16 September 2011. 



Mauritania has abolished slavery three times: in 1905 by the French colonial authorities; in 1961 after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was incorporated into the Mauritanian Constitution; and after the 1981 Abolition of Slavery Decree. Mauritania criminalised slavery in the landmark 2007 Anti-Slavery Law. In spite of this criminalisation, slavery is still rife and about 20% of Mauritiania’s 3.5 million residents live in enslavement, almost exclusively Haratin.

Due to a persistent culture of denial among the ruling elites and authorities – the majority of which are Arab-Berber – any attempts to raise awareness of the practice are stifled. In addition, no Haratin option exists on national census forms, and traditional indications of slavery, such as shackles, are not visible, as the slavery exists in slavery-like practices including modern serfdom, debt bondage and domestic servitude.

Even in cases where Haratin slaves have secured their freedom, they often continue to be economically, culturally and psychologically dependent on their former masters. They are regularly discriminated against and often have limited access to economic opportunities or basic services such as education and healthcare and are the poorest fraction of Mauritania’s population. This perpetuates the widespread belief in Mauritania and the region that the Haratin are inferior to their Arab-Berber counterparts. 



The Haratin, also referred to as ‘Black Moors’, are the largest minority group in Mauritania. The name Haratin derives from the Arabic word for ‘freedom’ which was applied to slaves freed after the 1905 Abolition Law came into effect. In contrast, ‘Abd’ or ‘Abid’ was ascribed to a slave’s name to denote enslavement. This term is sometimes still used in reference to the Mauritanian slave community. 

Their ethnic origin is Sub-Saharan African. They were invaded, enslaved and assimilated during raids by Arab-Berbers from the 8th century onwards. This resulted in erosion of their pre-enslavement culture and their culture, language and identity today is derived from Arab-Berber (Moorish) traditions whose culture remains dominant in the political, economic and security spheres of Mauritania. Their dance and music traditions reflect their history of enslavement and while heavily influenced by Arab-Berber culture and Islam, some remnants of their former Sub-Saharan musical culture are still evident, such as cries, screams and trances. The function of the music serves in a similar way to the gospel music created by African slaves in American slavery history, expressing a yearning for one freedom. Common instruments are the Akoting lute and the Tam Tam.



The enslavement of Black Africans by Arabs had begun in the 8th century, but from the 11th century it accelerated when the political situation in the area became more stable and slavery and the caste system became institutionalised. There was limited contact with Europeans until the 16th century when sporadic raids by Portuguese trans-Atlantic slave traders enslaved some people, but until the 19th Century Mauritania was deemed inhospitable for Europeans.

To pursue its commercial expansionist ambitions, in the late 1850s France began a gradual expansion of its colonial possessions from its strong base in Senegal, also reaching into the territory today constituting Mauritania. Throughout its African colonial possessions, France adopted a policy of maintaining the status quo as much as possible under the new policy of ‘peaceful pacification’. Paris negotiated the submission of most of local populace through chieftains and nobles on the promise that their customs, values, property and religion would be respected. At this time, slavery and an entrenched caste system were very much an established norm. With the Arab-Berbers at the top of the system, all negotiations were conducted with them. This further solidified the caste system in Mauretania.

For the Haratin, there were little improvements upon the establishment of French colonial rule. Although theCirculaire Ponty of 1 February 1901 abolished the right of a master to pursue and recover a slave, and slavery was abolished in a 1905 decree which established fines for any agreement which amounted to slavery. This was to bring Mauritania into line with other French territories which had already abolished slavery 1848. In spite of the very few slaves who were subsequently freed, it was widely accepted that “[the Arab-Berber’s] slaves would [be permitted] to stay with them”.

In 1906, the abolition of slavery in all of French colonial possessions was shown to have been ineffectual when thousands of slaves escaped their masters in French West Africa, only to be returned to their masters by the French administration. Such occurrences were repeated several times thereafter. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the League of Nations undertook initiatives in the 1920s to tackle the question of ‘slave-like’ conditions. In 1926, the Anti-Slavery Convention was passed, followed by the Forced Labour Convention in 1930.

During this time, several protracted droughts and economic crises resulted in some slaves being sent to Nouakchott to beg money for their masters whilst others were left to starve after their masters could not feed them. In the resulting nascent urbanisation, Nouakchott became a relative safe-haven for the Haratin. Despite the growing emancipated community there, discrimination in employment and social position remained entrenched and widespread.

 The French colonial administration loosened its hold on Mauritania after the Mauritanians assisted the Free French Forces during the Second World War and Mauritania eventually gained independence as one entity in 1960. In 1961, the Mauritanian Constitution was adopted with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights incorporated into the text, tacitly abolishing slavery.

In 1974, a movement known as El Hor (loosely translated as ‘Freedom’ or ‘emancipation movement’) was spawned from the small community of freed or escaped slaves in Mauritania, most of whom resided in Nouakchott. The movement’s focus on peaceful redress of social injustice, land reform and emancipation of the Haratin brought it into direct ideological confrontation with the government’s unwillingness to countenance reform, hence many El Hor activists faced arrest, torture, and went into exile.

Aftern a military coup d’état in 1980 a new law was put in place in 1981 to abolish slavery, albeit with the provision that slave owners, but not slaves, would receive compensation.  This made Mauritania the country in the world to abolish slavery; however the law fell short of the international precedent of criminalising slavery. Further, it turned out the initial sympathizing with oppressed groups which resulted in the establishment of this law, was merely a tactic to prevent the new regime’s power being threatened by oppressed groups.

A further military coup d’etat resulted into another regime change in 1984, followed by increased use of torture, arbitrary arrests, kangaroo courts against political opponents increased (including Haratin and Black Mauritanians), and implementation of racist policies against the Haratin and Black Mauritanian, including forced deportation of an estimated 53000 Black Mauritanians to Senegal during the 1989-1991 Mauritania-Senegal War.This regime was again overthrown by a coup d’etat, in 2005, followed by two years of military rule. In 2007 Abdallahi was elected president in the first democratic election since 1960. For the Haratin this resulted in the compensation articles of the 1981 law being repealed in a 2007 law (n° 2007.048), which criminalized slavery and outlined penalties (see below, Mauritanian Society and Law). In addition, laws prohibiting ‘tarnishing the image of the state’ were revoked. Previously, any discussion on slavery, including by journalists, could be placed under this law.

Amid accusations of corruption and increasing authoritarianism, Abdallahi was removed from power in another military coup d’état by General Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz. On 18 July 2009, new elections were held after the formal resignation of Abdallahi from office. Aziz won the election with international acceptance, in spite of internal complaints that the election had been rigged. These complaints are still upheld by some Mauritanians, including Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, current President of the National Assembly and the Popular Alliance for Progress political party which advocates for Haratin rights.



Islam is recognised in the Constitution as the ‘religion of the people and of the state’ and in its preamble as ‘the sole source of law’. Most Mauritanians believe in the Sunni interpretation of Islam and uphold the Maliki School of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) which postulates the legality of slavery. The Mauritanian saying ‘Paradise is under your master’s foot’ reflects the strict hierarchical social system, encouraged by this interpretation of Islam.

The Maliki School of thought defines Islamic law into three parts: Shariah law; Customary law; and Statute law. The 2007 Anti-Slavery Law which criminalised slavery for the first time is considered statute law.  Since the sharia law argues for the legality of slavery has precedence over all other laws, the application of the 2007 Act criminalizing slavery has been extremely limited and as of 2012, there has been only one conviction under the 2007 law. Moreover, international law, for these reasons, can also be ruled by Arab-Berber conservatives as inapplicable (see below, Mauritania and International Law) and an attack on their culture, which is a common rebuttal when cases of caste discrimination are raised throughout the world.

Many Islamic scholars in Mauritania still advocate for the legality of slavery and thereby hinder social change. However, some other Islamic scholars have repeatedly pointed out that the Qu'ran describes all Muslims as brothers and equal in each other’s eyes, hence religious texts, which are not regarded sacred and which advocate slavery, should be dismissed. In Mauritania however these views are a minority despite the constitution states all citizens are of equal rights and standing.

Another significant group in Mauritania are the Marabouts (murābiṭ). They are considered custodians of Islam and play a religious leader or teacher role in society. They profess that attaining Islamic knowledge cannot be achieved through reading texts alone, but through their teachings. Therefore, they have disciples, or Talibés, sometimes as many as 100 each, who are sent to attain greater closeness to God. This can take many years - sometimes decades - and it is widely reported by the UN and other organisations that the Talibés, often children, end up in slavery-like conditions. Often, they end up begging and being abused. The Special Rapporteur on Slavery noted in 2010 that during the many conversations that she had within the country, the prevailing belief was that forced begging was not a form of slavery. This issue clearly shows the acceptance of slavery-like conditions by Arab-Berbers in Mauritania.

Marabouts also hold high positions in the Tariqa’s, or Islamic Sufi religious orders, in which the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniya are the overwhelmingly dominant. It is in this position that they are able to exert their influence of belief in strict adherence to Malikism. This propagates and nurtures the existing belief in the legality of slavery under Islamic Law, whereby the deeply religious Mauritanians follow their lead. The ‘father’ ‘son’ relationship mentality that exists between the ‘master’ and its slave draws parallels with the way the Marabouts formulate a similar relationship with their Talibés. Finally, many parents wish to send their children to the Marabouts in order for them to acquire their Qu’ranic education, thus illustrating their influence in Mauritanian society.



At present, half of Mauritania’s Haratin population exist as de facto slaves. Traditionally, the Haratin work in the farmland, whilst Haratin women are made to do domestic work. Those who have been freed face persistent discrimination in education, healthcare, land rights and employment, in addition to political marginalisation. Haratin activists are frequently arrested, beaten and harassed by the authorities whilst engaging in peaceful initiatives.



In spite of abolition legislation in 1905, 1961, and 1981, there were sporadic reports of slaves and shackles still being sold on the open market during the 1980s and early 1990s. The 2007 Anti-Slavery Law finally criminalised the practice, although only one person has been sentenced under this law as of 2012. The government implemented a decree on 7 May 2011 which stipulates that all domestic workers must be offered reasonable contracts by the employer thereby tacitly recognising the plight of domestic workers who work in slavery-like conditions, but the effects of this decree remain to be seen.

Whilst the 2007 Anti-Slavery Law defined slavery for the first time, its effectiveness is hampered by its requirement that slaves must file a legal complaint themselves before prosecution can be pursued, NGOs are not allowed to make complaints on their behalf. Since the process is complicated and most Haratin are illiterate, this hinders implementation of the 2007 Law. No mechanisms are provided to assist slaves in filing complaints. Since the 2007 Act including no measures of publicizing the law to the general population and because of illiteracy, a high portion of Haratin have never heard of the 2007 law criminalizing slavery. Many are still unaware of the abolition of slavery and regard the practice normal instead of immoral.

The Law is further undermined by judges who have been reluctant to investigate reports of slavery. Successive governments and governmental institutions have insisted that the incidences of slavery remaining in Mauritania are merely the ‘vestiges of slavery’. And it has been claimed that slavery is not an issue as there are no chains or slave markets present and that slavery was abolished in 1981. This exhibits a profound misunderstanding in the modern conception of contemporary slavery. Slavery manifests in many ways in which chains and slave markets do not need to be present. The definition of slavery has changed to include e.g. bonded or forced labour and domestic servitude.


Effect on Women and Children

Slavery disproportionately affects women and children, with 90% of Mauritanian slaves being women or children. Female Haratin slaves suffer triple discrimination, first as women, second as mothers, and third as slaves. Female Haratin slaves continue to be one of the most marginalised demographics of Mauritanian society due to their near complete lack of participation in education, employment, politics and the legal system. Their children are considered the property of the master, and the children are often given away to different tribes or relatives of the master. Moreover, many children from a slave mother and male master are born as a result of sexual violence, a frequent mistreatment especially young female slave undergo, by their masters as well as his friends and family.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) affects 70% of women in Mauritania, including female Haratin. The government has undertaken initiatives to tackle this, and it has obtained support from religious leaders, however change is very slow.

A large number of children in Mauritania are enslaved, often from a very young age, working more than fourteen hours a day. For young girls work particularly includes domestic servitude and for young boys street begging, herding and manual labour. As a result, child slaves grow up never knowing their family and are denied the support that a family network can provide. By law children under the age of twelve may not be employed, those under fourteen for no more than two hours a day as long as the child’s health and education are not affected. Officially six years of school attendance are mandatory, however most Haratin children do not receive an education. Child protection laws lack enforcement and the state party blocks attempts by victims to make official complaints of slavery in Mauritanian courts. This is particularly true when the allegations involve public officials or others in positions of power. Mauritanian activists state that harassment of abolitionists as well as the reluctance of the government to implement anti-slavery laws and to prosecute slave-masters, results from high-level government officials themselves owning slaves. 


Situation of Freed Slaves

Haratin usually did not receive education, are illiterate and hence have very limited employment prospects upon their freedom. Therefore they are economically dependent on their masters, which combined with psychological dependency leads to them frequently staying with their master when freed in accordance with legal requirements. “Freed slaves” are sometimes being paid a nominal fee with no fixed working hours. However, the amount they earn would not provide them with an adequate salary to freely choose their employment. Yet, this perpetuates the belief that the slaves are free, when in fact they are fused through economic dependency to their master. In many cases, the slave or freed slave is forced to bequeath any savings or possessions to their master upon their death, hindering any possible opportunity to build up generational wealth amongst Haratin families.

There are few initiatives in place from which the Haratin can advance their socio-economic status. This is a major failing of the 2007 Anti-Slavery Law. Some development projects providing finance for the poor – which would naturally be applicable to a significant portion of the Haratin – have over the years been implemented in Mauritania by, for example, the World Bank. However, these projects were denied to the Haratin, thus the aid did not reach those who really needed it.

Additionally, Haratin’s economic emancipation is hampered by a systemic destitution enforced barring access to property. As a result of the Land Reform Act of 1983, lands Haratin have been cultivating for generations under feudalistic conditions are subject to land grabbing and can be leased at any time to national and foreign investors. The Haratin frequently see their land rights violated in favour of White Moors, who have been allowed by authorities to expropriate land owned by former slaves and to obstruct their access to water and pastures. Former slaves involved in land disputes concerning forced evictions have been attacked with impunity. Furthermore there are numerous cases of inheritance disputes since traditionally masters inherit their slaves’ possessions.


Political Marginalisation

The Haratin remain marginalised and underrepresented in political and public positions. There are several Flaws in the voting process, most notably from the fact that many Haratin are unable to vote due to not having formal identification papers. Few Haratin possess identification, such as birth certificates, since slave’s births are usually not registered. Many Haratin therefore do not enjoy suffrage. They also experience discrimination in voting as a result of their former or current enslaved status. Arab-Berbers own much of the land, and are therefore in a position whereby they can threaten their Haratin tenants or slaves with eviction should they not vote for their desired candidate. Another barrier to voting is the lack of sufficient education for the Haratin. According to one report, illiteracy is at 49% in Mauritania, the majority of which are Haratin, preventing them from following political developments.

Following the most recent elections of each, there are currently 2 Governors out of 13 and 3 Prefects out of 53 are Haratin as of 2012. There are also 5 Haratin in the National Assembly out of a possible 95, and 1 in the Senate out of a possible 56. Considering the Haratin make up 40% of the demographic composition of Mauritania, this falls significantly short of what would be expected. Currently, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, who was born a slave, is the President of the National Assembly, and came 2nd in the 2009 Presidential election with 16.29% of the vote, whereas General Aziz received 52.58% - voter turnout was approximately 25%. 

There are further issues with being able to self-identify as Haratin in official documents. Currently there is no Haratin option on the proposed 2012 National Census. Since September 2011, there have been continuing protests against the exclusion of the Haratin and other ethnic minorities into the census. This effectively means Haratin are not permitted to self-identify and perpetuates their fears of being a ‘stateless people’. This inability to identify themselves in official data also makes it difficult to provide for accurate numbers of Haratin in Mauritania. They are therefore marginalised through being effectively ‘invisible’. In October 2011, discussions did begin between civil society and the authorities to address this issue. 


Harassment, Arrests and Violence Against Anti-Slavery Activists

Haratin human rights defenders try to raise the profile of the issue of slavery through advocacy and lobbying, as well as attempts at implementing actions to urge the authorities to act on the laws in place. Human rights defenders and anti-slavery activists are regularly met with contempt or are obstructed by the authorities through a succession of hurdles. Often they are arrested and those whom they accuse to the authorities of possessing slaves are not investigated. The state has a protracted history of denying the existence of slavery in Mauritania, and whenever there is a rare admission of the existence of the practice, it is often trivialised in the form of statements expressing that those still in slavery are in minimal and declining numbers and that they are the last remaining remnants of a past social system.  This is in contradiction to the reality on ground as witnessed by NGOs and civil society.

Haratin human rights defenders search for victims of slavery who wish to be freed, bringing them to the authorities in order to report the crime since the law stipulates that the slave must report the crime themselves. Often the authorities are reluctant or refuse to further investigate the cases, and human rights defenders are met with intimidation and violence. When this arises, they often engage in sit-ins and demonstrations in pertinent locations (e.g., police headquarters, judiciary and governmental buildings) and are again met with violence and arrests. In some cases when the human rights defender is more prominent and recognised, he or she is intimidated and harassed by the authorities into ceasing their actions. Other cases include detention of Haratin editors and journalists of newspapers critical of the government, as well as killings of activists protesting against the lack of inclusion of Haratin in the upcoming national census. Further evidence of authorities trying to suppress human rights advocacy is seen in the IRA continuing to be unrecognized by the government despite repeated attempts to register and members being arrested on grounds of membership in an illegal organization.

Officials have been fired because of their involvement in Human Rights advocacy. IRA leader Mr. Birame Ould Dah Oudl Abeid for instance was relieved of his post as Senior Adviser of the President of The National Commission for Human Rights and told by the Director of Public Liberties of the Ministry of the Interior to cease his continued activism in the fight against slavery or he would face prosecution and imprisonment for “illegal activities”. Prior to this the president of The National Commission for Human Rights was dismissed because he continually mentioned slavery in the Commission’s periodical reports and had refused to follow authorities’ instructions to dismiss Mr. Birame Ould Dah Oudl Abeid from his advisory position.

Since the threat of prosecution in 2010, Mr. Birame Ould Dah Oudl Abeid, as well as many other anti-slavery activists, has been arrested several times. Since April 28th 2012 he and six other activists are held in detention. Charges include threatening national security and good morals, management of a non-authorized organization and, solely for Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, the crime of Apostasy.



The UNPO condemns slavery in all its manifestations and deplores its practice as a violation of the fundamental and basic human rights enshrined in international law. This abhorrent practice prevents people from leading a dignified life, taking away their freedom to participate politically and to decide their cultural and economic direction and destiny. The Haratin are discriminated due to archaic traditions which date back hundreds of years and are not conducive with accepted international democratic values and principles and international law.

Nouakchott must bring its domestic laws into line with international law and remove reservations on fundamental human rights treaties which, through the elevation of Shariah law, oppress Haratin. Nouakchott should improve the rights of all minorities in Mauritania, particularly the Haratin community, via better engagement. The Haratin have been internationally recognised for their use of peaceful and nonviolent means to attain their rights, thus providing a perfect environment in which Nouakchott can engage.



Mauritania is a monist state, whereby all international treaties form part of the domestic law and are hierarchically superior to domestic law. In reality however there are many ways to get implementation of international law, e.g. judges being reluctant to enact real implementation of international treaties. Some of the most important aspects of the treaties have had reservations placed on them so that they can fit in with the Constitution. Since most positions of power and authority are held by those who are most likely to enslave the Haratin, there leaves little hope of utilising these international instruments in a domestic setting.

Below is a list of important international legal instruments which Mauritania has signed and which are relative to the situation of the Haratin:

-  2005: Trafficking Protocol (2000) to the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (2000).

-  Acceded.

-  Includes a mention of slavery.

-  2004: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).

-  Signed and Ratified.

-  2004: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).

-  Signed and Ratified.

-  Albeit, with general reservation on any provisions that are contradictory to Shariah Law and Mauritania’s Constitution.

-  2001: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979).

-  Acceded.

-  Albeit, with general reservation on any provisions that are contradictory to Shariah Law and Mauritania’s Constitution.

-  1991: Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

-  Ratified.

-  Albeit, with general reservation on provisions not conducive with Shariah Law.

-  1988: International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965).

-  Ratified.

-  Does not recognise the competence of the Committee as stipulated under Article 14.

-  Geneva Conventions (1949).

-  Ratified.

-  Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948).

-  International Labour Organization Conventions:               

-  ILO 29 and 105 on Forced or Compulsory Labour (1961 and 1967 respectively).

-  ILO 100 and 111 concerning the Elimination of Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation (2001 and 1963 respectively).

-  ILO 138 and 182 pertaining to Forbidding the Employment of Children and Minors (2001).


Regional Charters:

-  2004: Arab Charter on Human Rights.

-  Acceded, but not ratified like most other Arab states.

-  1990: Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam; does not require ratification.

-  1986: African Charter for Human Rights.

-  Acceded.

-  Including protocol on establishing the African Court for Human Rights and Peoples.


Colonial Mauritania

-  League of Nations Slavery Convention (1926).
-  Including protocol which amends the Convention: supplementary Convention on the Abolition of - --  Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956).