Mar 16, 2022

IRA Mauritania convenes antislavery movements from across West Africa and the Sahel

Between March 16-19 over one thousand members of antislavery movements from across West Africa and the Sahel regions convened at the Palais de Congress of Mauritania. The meeting was convened by UNPO member IRA-Mauritania, with the support and sponsorship of the government of Mauritania. Besides the critical importance of the topic for discussion for all present – how to end slavery in the region – the convention has a much broader and deeper significance for the antislavery movement in Mauritania.

In July 2020 the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and IRA Mauritania filed a report with the United Nations highlighting a worsening situation for civil and political liberties for the Haratin people of Mauritania, the largest ethnolinguistic group in Mauritania. For centuries the Haratin had been held in slavery. And, while slavery was ultimately criminalized in Mauritania in 2007, the law is weakly enforced, with women and children continuing to be subjected to slavery and slave-like practices. Moreover, the Haratin have continued to face legal and extralegal efforts to disenfranchise them and otherwise keep them marginalized and in servitude in Mauritania.

Our joint report noted concern that “[t]entative efforts to encourage greater participation in government service under President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz have been halted nearly entirely since the election of President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani in 2019” as well as a worsening of the widespread “repression of the Haratin and antislavery activists.” We noted that the 2019 elections “were characterized by systematic efforts to exclude Haratin from engaging on an equal basis in Mauritanian political life and to repress any who sought to engage.” And that IRA-Mauritania “continue[d] to be summarily denied the ability to form and register officially in Mauritania.”

Our report called on the government of Mauritania to reverse this trend and to take concrete measures to guarantee “equal participation of the Haratin and non-Arabic speaking communities in public life.” Without efforts to enfranchise the Haratin, including permitting IRA-Mauritania to register, efforts to eradicate slavery and centuries of marginalization of the Haratin would likely fail.

In this light, the March 16-19 meetings represent a remarkable achievement. In December 2021, IRA-Mauritania was permitted to register itself legally in Mauritania, with its leader, Biram Dah Abeid permitted to openly work in Mauritania after years of persecution. Thereafter, the process of hosting the March 16-19 regional conference became possible. Moreover, did not just give its tacit consent to the event, but rather helped organize it under its auspices, with the direct support of the government of Mauritania and President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. This included opening the national parliament, the Palais de Congress, to IRA-Mauritania, up to a thousand of its national, regional and international supporters.

Attending the event, the UNPO General Secretary, Ralph J. Bunche, noted that “the event comes at a time where the world desperately needs good news, governments willing to work with and welcome civil society and improve civil liberties. While the event represents just one step towards the liberation of the Haratin, it is a necessary and critically important one. It is testament to a government willing to change and a tribute to the decades of efforts of IRA-Mauritania and Biram Dah Abeid. While the road to liberation is long, moments like this remind us that change is possible.”