(by Monisha Bansal, March 6, 2008, CNSNews.com) – Four months after taking office, the newly elected Mauritanian government criminalized slavery in August 2007. Human rights advocates, however, are concerned at the lack of progress on prosecution.

Slavery has been illegal in Mauritania since 1981, but the law has not been enforced. The military dictatorship that ruled the country for more than 20 years denied that slavery existed in Mauritania. The country is listed on the Tier Two Watch List for the U.S. State Department for its inaction in eradicating slavery.

In August, the democratically elected President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi introduced legislation that required mandatory time in prison for slavery.

According to Romana Cacchioli, Africa program officer at Anti-Slavery International, “Slavery is deeply embedded in Mauritanian society and exists across the country, both in rural and urban areas.” She noted that about 40 percent of the country’s population is slaves.

“Virtually all cases of slavery documented in Mauritania concern individuals whose ancestors were enslaved many generations ago,” she said during a briefing sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and George Soros’ Open Society Institute, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

“Under Mauritania’s caste-based society, slaves are at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy,” said Cacchioli. “Slaves have no rights and no choices in life.”

Boubacar Messaoud, president of SOS Slaves, Mauritania’s primary anti-slavery organization, called it an “inherited state.”

“Slaves are subjugated. They are dominated by their masters. They know nothing else but their masters. In fact, they know nothing but this system,” he said.

Ibrahima Dia, Mauritanian ambassador to the United States, however, said: “A large number of slaves in Mauritania are free. They are free, but they still enjoy their status of being slaves, especially in the urban areas.”

Messaoud countered, “They are free to move about, but they are intrinsically linked to the master’s family.”

“Slaves are told that under Islam, their paradise is bound to their master, so if they do what the master tells them, they will go to heaven,” explained Cacchioli.

“If, however, they disobey or run away, slaves are told they will be forsaken by God and live outside of Islam. In an Islamic country, this is a powerful means of control. The slaves are victims of obscurantism, and their outlook is fatalistic, with many living in the belief that it is Allah’s wish for them to be slaves,” she added.

“In reality, however, Islam dictates that a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim,” she said.

Messaoud said this has led to a violation of civil, political, economic, and labor rights, as well as high illiteracy due to limited access to education and training and high infant mortality.

He added that they are marginalized and discriminated against even if they are free, and the slave owner can appropriate their belongings at any time.

Dia said many former slaves have become influential in politics, in the military, and in business. But he acknowledged that “there is the persistence of slavery in Mauritania.”

“It’s like Western countries still working to get rid of racial discrimination,” he said.

“This is a deeply embedded practice in Mauritania, and it will take time to eradicate it,” said Messaoud. But he said he was concerned about the pace of progress. “There have not been any cases in court, but there should have been.”

He noted that the judiciary and police forces are complicit in the practice.

Messaoud added that human rights groups are pushing for affirmative action and non-discrimination laws, and “we are campaigning for the law to be strengthened particularly to enable NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and individuals to be able to have access and local standing to take cases on behalf of victims of slavery.”

“Unfortunately, Mauritania doesn’t have the resources to fully implement the legislation,” Dia said. He added that Abdellahi has “committed himself during his mandate [to] do all that he can to make sure that our country has made significant steps to the abolition of the [culture] of slavery.”

All original CNSNews.com material, copyright 1998-2008 Cybercast News Service. Reprinted here with permission from CNSNews. Visit the website at CNSNews.com.


1.  a) What continent is Mauritania part of?
b)  Name the capital of Mauritania.
c)  List the countries that border Mauritania.

2.  a) Who is the president of Mauritania?
b)  Since what year has slavery been illegal in Mauritania?
c)  What did the military dictatorship that ruled Mauritania for more than 20 years prior to President Abdellahi’s democratic election say about slavery?
d)  Read the “BACKGROUND ON SLAVERY IN MAURITANIA” below.  For how many years has slavery existed in Mauritania?
e)  Why did President Abdellahi criminalize slavery in 2007 if it had already been illegal there for over 25 years?

3.  What percent of Mauritania’s population is slaves?

4.  President Abdellahi criminalized slavery in Mauritania over six months ago.  What is the focus of this article?

5.  a) According to Romano Cacchioli, what are slaves told they need to do to go to heaven?
b)  What are slaves told will happen to them if they disobey or run away?

6.  President Abdellahi has criminalized slavery in Mauritania but it still exists.  Why hasn’t anyone been prosecuted for owning slaves, according to Boubacar Messaoud?

7.  During the panel discussion on slavery in Mauritania, Ibrahima Dia, Mauritanian ambassador to the U.S., said that many former slaves have become influential in politics, in the military, and in business. But he acknowledged that “there is the persistence of slavery in Mauritania.”
“It’s like Western countries still working to get rid of racial discrimination,” he said.
How is slavery in Mauritania different from “Western countries still working to get rid of racial discrimination?”
(If you’re unsure of the answer, read more detailed information of slavery in Mauritania at iabolish.org/slavery_today/country_reports/mr.html.)


Estimates of the number of black Africans enslaved in Mauritania range from 100,000 to as many as one million. Chattel slavery, in which one person is owned as another’s property, has existed in Mauritania for 800 years-born out of racism and a skewed version of Islamic fundamentalism. Slaves are raised to believe that serving their Arab-Berber masters is a religious duty, and most remain in bondage their entire lives.

Slavery has been a part of Mauritanian society for centuries. Over 800 years ago, Arab and Berber tribes descended from the Mediterranean peninsula and launched slave raids against the indigenous African population, abducting women and children as slaves. Those enslaved were converted to Islam and raised to believe that their religious duty was to serve their masters faithfully. The relationship of master (bidanes) and slave (haratines) continues to this day, with thousands of haratines families owned as inheritable property by bidanes and denied basic human rights by Mauritania’s Islamic courts. (from iabolish.org/sos/)


Read more detailed information of slavery in Mauritania at iabolish.org/slavery_today/country_reports/mr.html.

For background information on Mauritania, go to the CIA World FactBook website here.

For a map of Mauritania, go to worldatlas.com.

This article was based on The Woodrow Wilson Center’s panel discussion on slavery in Mauritania click here for information on the speakers.

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