Oct 17, 2013

European Parliament Addresses Slavery In Mauritania

On Monday, 14 October 2013, the Human Rights Subcommittee of the European Parliament – a committee tied to the Foreign Affairs committee – discussed the pressing issue of Slavery in the Sahel, and specifically the case of Mauritania.

Meeting Agenda

Hearing video stream

For the occasion, the DROI secretariat put together an exceptional panel, gathering Mr. Biram Abeid of IRA Mauritania (Initiative for the resurgence of the abolitionist movement), Ms. Sarah Mathewson of Anti-Slavery International and Mr. Jean-Marie Kagabo of the International Labor Organization. Other Members of Parliament present included Mr. Eduard Kukan, Mr. Jean Roatta, Mr. Jean-Jacob Bicep and Mr. Charles Tannock.

Mrs. Barbara Lochbihler, MEP and Chair of the Subcommittee, opened the session by reminding the audience of the huge prevalence of slavery across the world (21 million, while other sources state as much as 30 million), and stressed the fact that the European Parliament committee on Crime and Corruption is key in combatting slavery in Europe, where it is estimated that 880 000 people live in slave-like conditions – a quarter of which are involved in the sex industry. She noted also that the work done over the past years by UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of slavery, Ms. Gulnara Shahinian, was very worthy, and regretted that she could not be present at the hearing.

Biram Dah Abeid, of IRA Mauritania, then took the floor to expose his country’s situation: with 20% of its population enslaved through a century-old system of slavery through inheritance, Mauritania stands as one of the worst cases in the world with regards to slavery. The Haratin community (50% of the population, of which the 20% living in slavery) struggles to live in a system based on discrimination and stigmatization of Black Africans, perpetrated and encouraged by the ruling minority of Arab-Berbers (who control the State, the judicial system and the religious authorities). The recent case of Noura, a 19 year-old girl who managed to escape her master and join IRA, has revived tensions between abolitionists and the State. In Boutilimit, Mauritania, IRA has been staging a sit in for over a month in front of the police’s buildings; asking that Noura’s master be brought before justice and tried for his crime (Mauritania has officially criminalized slavery, but has yet to apply its laws). The sit in has been met by weekly crackdowns on the peaceful protesters by the authorities: beatings, intimidation and the detention of 5 militants, 3 of which remain in prison.

Jean-Marie Kagabo, of the the International Labor Organization, offered his organization’s perspective on the situation in Mauritania: the 2007 Mauritanian law which (finally) criminalized slavery was obtained following pressure from the ILO and the European Union on the Mauritanian government. The ILO offered technical assistance for the drafting of the law and assisted the state in raising awareness about the law across the country. The ILO is seeking to carry out qualitative and quantitative research in Mauritania, so as to establish a long-term strategy for the abolition of slavery. This would be accompanied by support to victims of slavery. This long-term strategy should be given a budget of at least 1 or 2 million Euros, so as to allow for real technical cooperation. The underlying aim of the ILO is also to maintain an open political dialogue with the Mauritanian state so as to ensure the application of legislation.

Sarah Mathewson, of Anti-Slavery International (the oldest abolitionist civil society organization), spoke of the situation of Mauritania, criticizing the Mauritanian government for failing to enforce their own laws, and further considered the reforms implemented by the state to be purely cosmetic. She suggested several necessary steps, such as the training of police officers to learn to deal with slavery, setting up programs to prevent slavery and help those who are currently enslaved and giving small loans to small businesses and farmers. Ms. Mathewson also raised the issue of “feminization of slavery”, which is obvious in the sense that women are those who can “produce” slaves. Also, they are of particular value as sexual objects for their masters. Possible ways out include holding politicians accountable, raising awareness through media, providing legal assistance to help finish with the culture of impunity that currently reigns in Mauritania, promoting emancipation and supporting anti-slavery organizations. Key to this is also the EU’s role in developing strategic measures to increase visibility on the issue and in placing pressure on third countries – and of course providing funding.

To conclude, the European External Action Service was invited to outline its policy towards the Sahel and Mauritania. Mr. Sean Doyle, Head of division for West Africa, explained that the EU High Representative’s strategy in Mauritania so far has focused on the judiciary. The EU has been aiming to breach the gap between the two sources of law in practice in Mauritania: Islamic law and the Western model. The current projects are undertaking a reform of the judiciary. Two additional projects have involved five NGOs to train personnel and advocate on the issue of slavery. He also stressed the important role played by the European Development Directorate General (DEVCO).

Mr. Jean-Jacob Bicep, an MEP from France and member of the Green party, intervened from the floor to raise the issue of a misuse of European funds in a recent census in Mauritania (largely sponsored by the EU) which largely underestimates the number of slaves in Mauritania. He appealed for European action on the issue, stressing the aggravating factor of slavery through inheritance.

In conclusion, Members of the European Parliament seemed to offer that linking the amount of cooperation and development aid to the efforts made by Mauritania with regards to justice and freedom would be a plausible solution – although the EEAS maintains that this is already the case, arguing that political dialogue must be maintained and that human rights is always on the agenda for them. UNPO hopes to see the momentum grow about this issue in the European Parliament, leading Member States to carry out effective action on slavery in their bi-lateral ties with Mauritania. Also, UNPO underlines the pressing need for funds to reach victims of slavery on the ground, who have yet to see the EU’s efforts develop into concrete support of victims.

Mr. Abeid heads the organization IRA Mauritania, which is a UNPO partner in Mauritania, and dedicates his work to combatting discrimination and slavery in his country. A descendant of slaves himself, he works tirelessly to represent the Haratin and Black African community of Mauritania which represents 50% of the population, of which 20% is still enslaved today. His presence in Brussels and Europe during the month of October serves to raise awareness amongst European policy makers and politicians about the situation of such a large tranche of the Mauritanian population.

Several past hearings since the beginning of the year have placed slavery and human rights in the region on the desks of Members of the European Parliament. In July, Kevin Bales and his colleague Zoe Trodd presented their report on slavery and the EU’s role in combatting it (both within its borders and outside). Since, attention has been given to an initiative by Mr. Charles Tannock, MEP, who oversaw a Parliamentary report on Human Rights in the Sahel - including Western Sahara - which included a section on Mauritania, based on a previous encounter with Biram Abeid of IRA Mauritania. This report will be voted upon shortly.

** Attached documents**

- Biram Abeid's speech in English and French

- UNPO briefing note on the situation in Mauritania

Débat sur les réalités de l'esclavage moderne by jean-jacob-bicep