Ruling by the African Union’s committee a major step forward in fight to eradicate slavery in Mauritania, rights groups say.
26 January 2018
Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and Anti-Slavery International warmly welcome the landmark ruling of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) in the case of Said and Yarg Salem against Mauritania.
The decision in the case of two brothers born into slavery in Mauritania, whose former masters were prosecuted for slavery in the first ever such case in the country, but given extremely lenient sentences, was announced on 26 January 2018 by the ACERWC.
The ACERWC found that Mauritania’s authorities have failed to take adequate steps to prevent, investigate, prosecute, punish and remedy the widespread practice of slavery which particularly affects the state’s ethnic Haratine community, resulting in a situation of impunity.
Ruling that Mauritania’s Anti-Slavery Law does not provide adequate protection against slavery in practice, it found the state to be in violation of its obligations to protect children’s rights under the African Children’s Charter, including a failure to act in their best interest and protect them from discrimination, child labour, abuse and harmful cultural practices, as well as to provide for their survival and development, education, and leisure, recreation and cultural activities.
Mauritania is now required to provide the two child victims with compensation, psychosocial support and education and ensure that all the perpetrators are brought to justice. It must also take wider steps to eradicate child slavery in Mauritania, including providing special measures for child victims and making the elimination of slavery a priority.
‘This ruling has the potential to bring about real change in how Mauritania addresses the criminal prosecution of slavery in Mauritania.’ says Lucy Claridge, MRG’s Legal Director and member of the team presenting the case to the Committee in 2016. ‘MRG has supported this case since 2011 as we believe that the law can be used to improve lives. We now urge the Mauritanian government to fully respect the ruling and set about putting the ACERWC’s recommendations in to action.’
Acting on behalf of the Salem brothers, MRG and Mauritanian NGO SOS-Esclaves took the case before the ACERWC, a body of the African Union whose role is to urge states to comply with their obligations under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The case was first heard by the ACERWC on 27 October 2016, and the Committee carried out a country visit in March 2017 to further investigate the allegations.
“I’m really happy for the boys; they’ve been waiting so long for justice”, Said Jakub Sobik, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, which helped bring the original case into the Mauritanian courts in 2011 and supported the current case.
“This ruling offers recognition that they were wronged and that they were failed by their own government. The message from African Union to the Mauritanian Government is extremely clear: ensure that their masters are prosecuted with the full force of the law.
“I’m also happy for all the other survivors of slavery who are waiting for justice as their cases get ignored by Mauritanian courts. If the Mauritanian Government is unwilling to prosecute slavery of its own volition, we will have to make it happen through international pressure.”
SOS Esclaves welcomed the ruling and urged the Mauritanian government to implement it. “The Government should ensure the effective promotion of all human rights and the total eradication of slavery by the firm application of the law that criminalises slavery. The African Commission and the international community must do everything possible to help achieve this goal”, the organisation said in a statement.
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Slavery in Mauritania
In Mauritania slave status is passed down from mother to child, and the brothers, Said Ould Salem (born 2000) and Yarg Ould Salem (born 2003), automatically became slaves to the El Hassine family at birth.
The boys managed to escape their enslavement in April 2011, and in November that same year, their master, Ahmed Ould El Hassine, was found guilty in the Criminal Court of Nouakchott of holding the brothers in slavery, and depriving them of schooling. In the first and only successful prosecution under Mauritania’s 2007 anti-slavery legislation, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and ordered to pay compensation of MRO 1.35 million (USD 4,700).
The sentence and the amount of damages awarded were far below the tariff of five to ten years’ imprisonment provided for in the 2007 anti-slavery law and were appealed by the State Prosecutor in 2010. Additionally, El Hassine was released from jail pending the appeal which did not take place until shortly after the submission of the case to ACERWC.
On 24 November 2016, the Court of Appeal increased the level of compensation awarded to the boys, but their former slave owner’s sentence remained unchanged, requiring him to serve only the remainder of his original two-year sentence.
With the support of MRG and their lawyer, the boys requested that the state prosecutor seek an appeal to the Supreme Court since the Appeal Court decision still failed to apply the law. Said and Yarg continue to be financially supported by the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement who also assisted them in their initial escape from slavery. Fair compensation and justice are key to the brothers as they finish school and begin to establish their independent lives.
‘We are hopeful that this ruling from the ACERWC will have a positive bearing on the ongoing appeal before the Mauritanian Supreme Court, and other criminal complaints of slavery which are currently stagnating in the Mauritanian courts,’ says Claridge.
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Notes to Editors:
- Minority Rights Group International is the leading international human rights organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.
- Anti-Slavery International works to eliminate all forms of slavery and slavery like practices throughout the world. Founded in 1839 by British abolitionists, it is the world’s oldest international human rights organization.
- The full text as well as a summary of the ACERWC’s decision, in English and French, can be found on the Committee’s website.
- Find out more in Enforcing Mauritania’s Anti-Slavery Legislation: The Continued Failure of the Justice System to Prevent, Protect and Punish, a joint publication by Anti-Slavery International, Minority Rights Group International, Society for Threatened Peoples and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.
For further information or to arrange interviews contact:
Lucy Claridge, MRG Legal Director
T: (+44) (0) 7866 741 922
Andy Wasley, Communications Manager, Anti-Slavery International