On Saturday, the government of Mauritania denied ten anti-slavery activists from the United States entry to the country, arguing that their visit was in contravention of the law.
The activists, who landed in Nouakchott Airport on Friday, were on a week-long visit to the West African state where they planned to meet with local activists and officials at the U.S. Embassy.
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Their trip, which was organized by an anti-slavery organization based in Chicago, was part of a human rights campaign headed by US-based civil rights leader and activist Jesse Jackson.
But the Mauritanian government spokesman Mohamed Lemine Ould Cheikh, who doubles up as the Culture Minister, insists that the group’s visit would have been divisive.
“We told the American embassy, which gave us the delegation’s programme, that entry visas would not be issued because we consider the programme to be in breach of Mauritanian law,” Ould Cheikh was quoted by the AFP.
Monopoly of Slavery
Decades after Mauritania, the eleventh largest country in Africa, abolished slavery in 1981, servitude and exploitation remain rampant, with children as young as 10 years being subjected to forced labor and other forms of abuse.
According to Global Slavery Index, close to 43,000 people in Mauritania are currently in slavery. But the SOS Slavery puts the number at 600,000 (about 17 percent of the entire Mauritanian population).
Oddly, 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. What’s more, the state has only managed to prosecute one slave owner since 2007 when slavery was officially criminalized in the country.
The government’s stand is that slavery has totally been eradicated and “all people are free”. It even argues that any claims of slavery in the country are a manipulation by the West and an act of hostility against Islam.
Even though it was the last country in the world to outlaw slavery, Mauritania still retains the world’s largest number of slaves, and there is no end in sight, at least not until the government acknowledges the existence of the practice.
Majority of slaves in the country are descendants of black Africans who were captured during the ancient slave raids. The slaves are commonly referred to as “black moors” or “haratin”.
Their masters are light skinned Arabs of the Berber ethnic group, who are the descendants of traditional slave owners locally known as “al-beydan”.
In Mauritania, slavery mainly takes the form of “chattel slavery”, in which the slaves and their descendants are considered full property of their masters. This means a slave owner can sell, rent out or give away their slaves without a question.
The United Nations has been pushing the government of Mauritania to end slavery, even proposing several changes that could hasten the process of total abolishment.
For instance, it recommends that the government must pay lawyers to represent slavery victims, allow international monitors into the country to investigate the existence of slavery, and finance local anti-slavery organizations.
It is in the best interest of all stakeholders, including the government of Mauritania, to ensure these policies are fully implemented and the practice is completely eliminated. Either way, no human being should be living in servitude in this day and age.