Mauritania has lost out on benefits from the United States as President Trump discontinued the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to the country starting 2019.
The decision was arrived at after a review meeting by the office of the U.S. trade representative, which determines the eligibility of African countries for the program. Mauritania failed the eligibility criteria because it has not made enough efforts to end slavery and forced labour and because of restricting civil society from working freely to address anti-slavery issues.
Mauritania is one of the African countries where slavery is still rampant more than 35 years after it was officially abolished and over 10 years since it was criminalised.
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Majority of slaves, commonly referred to as “black moors” or “haratin”, are descendants of black Africans captured during ancient slave raids. Their masters are light skinned Arabs of the Berber ethnic group, who are the descendants of traditional slave owners locally known as “al-beydan”.
The government has continuously denied the existence of slavery in the country, even threatening to prosecute local anti-slavery activists, whom it accuses of working with the West to destabilize the country. Additionally, very few slave owners have been prosecuted ever since the act was criminalised.
The most recent prosecution was in 2018 when a slave owner Hamoudi Ould Saleck sentenced to 20 years in jail, the same jail terms as his father, sentenced posthumously after his death before the end of the trial. They held a family with their two children as slaves for many years.
Another woman, Revea Mint Mohamed, was also jailed for 10 years for keeping three slaves including a 29-year-old who had been kept since she was a small girl, reports the BBC.
Mauritania was ranked 6th on 2018 Global Slavery Index, behind Eritrea, Central African Republic and Burundi, and ahead of South Sudan on the continent.
According to the US trade representative, Mauritania can only get back into the AGOA program from which it benefited $128 million in 2017, by eradicating hereditary slavery and forced labour.
“Forced or compulsory labour practices like hereditary slavery have no place in the 21st century. This action underscores this Administration’s commitment to ending modern slavery and enforcing labour provisions in our trade laws and trade agreements. We hope Mauritania will work with us to eradicate forced labour and hereditary slavery so that its AGOA eligibility may be restored in the future,” said Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney.
The country has considered the withdrawal of these benefits as inconsequential, according to government spokesman Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, who termed it “light and meaningless.”
He went on to add that the country has worked to fight slavery “by its own efforts and without any American help.”
While Mauritania is the first African country to be completely suspended from AGOA, the U.S. partially suspended Rwanda from the program over its decision to increase tariffs on secondhand clothes imports. The suspension affects duty-free exports of clothes from Rwanda to the U.S.