Mauritanian government denies the existence of slavery

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Analysis: Slavery Denial and other ways to discredit the Anti-Slavery movement, writes Sarah Mathewson

How can the government of Mauritania continue to deny the existence of slavery, a practice that apparently affects many thousands of people in the country?

Indeed, while the stories we hear from escaped slaves reveal that slavery is still commonplace throughout Mauritania, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has frequently held press conferences and made official statements asserting that slavery ‘only exists in the minds of those who wish to exploit the poverty of others for their own gain’.

The narrative that NGOs are only exploiting poverty for their own gain resonates powerfully in developing countries, where vast numbers of people remain marginalised, despite a proliferation of organisations claiming to help them. Given the very visible contrast between the salaries, lifestyles and resources of many NGO workers, and those of the populations they purport to serve, it is entirely understandable that people have grown cynical about the NGO industry altogether over recent decades.

There are certainly some NGOs that do appropriate and absorb vast amounts of funding, without any real impact on the issues they exist to address. Furthermore, in Muslim-majority countries, the notion that Western organisations denouncing human rights abuses have an ideological agenda – to discredit Islam – also makes the population reject their critiques in a spirit of allegiance to their faith and community. And it is true that discourses about the ‘barbarism’ of Muslims (or the ‘backwardness’ of African nations) have long served both to justify violent Western wars and occupations, and to divert attention from the violence and abuses of governments and societies in the West itself.

If we could point to reliable numbers and statistics to support our qualitative documentation of the problem, our position would be stronger. However, the Mauritanian government has long refused to undertake nationwide studies or censuses that would provide the data to estimate the exact scale of the practice.

The fact that people who escaped slavery refer to many more people they have left behind tells us that those who escape form a tiny minority of the enslaved population overall. But the number of slavery cases brought to us offers the roughest of estimates, given that only a minority of those who escaped enslavement will enter into contact with us. Organisations who have tried to assert statistical or numerical estimates can easily be undermined, as quantitative data is almost non-existent.

Even where cover-up of slavery practices is not a direct conspiracy, the complicity and identification between people within Mauritania’s institutions and the slave-owning elites ensures that laws are not enforced, preventing recognition of the practice from a legal perspective. Indeed, the Mauritanian President’s frequent press conferences on the non-existence of slavery subtly send the message to police and judges that they cannot act in ways that would undermine this official line. Even if they do not have slave-owning connections themselves (and they often do), they have indirect, sometimes unconscious, interests in maintaining the privileges of the ethnic elite that they usually belong to. It is unsurprising that there have never been any successful prosecutions of slave-owners in Mauritania.

But if slavery really affects thousands, where are all its victims, and why isn’t the practice immediately obvious to any observer?

Well, even among the minority of those who escaped slavery who have access to public platforms (through NGOs), most do not wish to speak publicly about their experiences. They have grown up under the control of masters, who have deprived them of rights from birth and indoctrinated them with strong notions of inferiority. Speaking out against those same masters requires confidence that most enslaved people lack; many find it difficult even to articulate what has happened to them. Without a clear understanding of one’s rights, how can one speak of those rights being denied or abused?

People who formerly were in slavery also – rightly – fear repercussions from their masters or other slave-owning elites; punishments for insolence or attempted escapes are usually violent or even fatal. Few wish to become the spokesperson for people in slavery after they leave.

Moreover, slavery in Mauritania is the most extreme form of alienation. Most people born into slavery are separated from their mothers at a young age, to prevent family bonds from forming, and do not know their own lineage, only their master’s. They are kept entirely isolated and dependent on her masters, meaning that many do not feel a sense of solidarity with others who share the same fate when they escape their situation. They seek out NGOs only for material support, and then they wish to get on with their lives far from any further attention. Anti-slavery NGOs have to understand and respect victims’ right to silence, anonymity and protection from publicity.

There are a number of former victims who do want to speak about their experiences of slavery. But the small number in itself (tens, not even hundreds) is used by slavery-deniers to undermine the notion that there are thousands more. The same few people’s lives, documented in each media story, cast them as the exceptions, not the rule. Additionally, re-telling the worst of one’s traumas is difficult. Even the most determined of survivors are only willing to tell their harrowing stories so many times, before becoming disillusioned and weary with the demanding journalists who plumb the depths of their painful, suppressed memories, before disappearing. What change or benefit does it bring to them or their families? Who is really listening?

So what about the descendants of those who (or whose ancestors) have managed to settle independently from their traditional masters? Or those who have been educated and have improved their social status and influence?

The truth is that most continue to face much of the contempt and hostility reserved for those belonging to slave-castes, to the extent that those who can dissociate themselves from their slavery background will gladly do so. People of slave descent in Mauritania will often refer to themselves simply as ‘Moors’ or lay claim to some other ethnic heritage, rather than wear the label ‘Haratine’ (freed slave). People who have escaped slavery know only too well that they are regarded with disdain and treated accordingly – why would they lay claim to such a stigmatised, shameful position? For every Haratine activist, there are hundreds more who disavow their status.

For the minority of people of slave descent in Mauritania who have access to education, their gains in influence and opportunities are usually inversely proportional to their solidarity with people in slavery. The Haratine who deny the existence of slavery and eschew the anti-slavery movement are welcomed and rewarded by an establishment hostile to any threat to the status quo. Their denial of the existence of discrimination casts them as the deserving ones in a meritocracy that others have merely failed to make use of – an illusion that Mauritania’s elites are keen to perpetuate.

These exceptions become tokens for the establishment to point to when challenged. Indeed, these few Haratines are often appointed as Ambassadors, members of human rights bodies or delegates to the UN Human Rights Council. It becomes harder to counter the regime’s claims of equal opportunities when they are proffered by people descended from slavery themselves.

These tactics are not the preserve of the Mauritanian authorities alone, and we certainly shouldn’t present them as if they are. All are familiar tools of any privileged group, used to maintain any oppressive social hierarchy. Drawing comparisons with the power structures of our own society can help us appreciate just how subtly they might operate, as power and privilege are often exercised unconsciously, without any obvious conspiracy or organisation.

For example, few would claim that police violence against the Black population of the US is consciously organised, but it takes place so routinely, with so many contributing factors rooted in US institutions, that it might as well be. Similarly, social class is often dismissed as an outdated concept in the West, with society’s elites claiming we live in a ‘meritocracy’, that their positions of power are due to their own talent and hard work, and pointing to exceptional cases from different backgrounds as evidence that there are no barriers to success. But even the most cursory research into social ‘mobility’ reveals that class continues to define and limit people’s access to social, economic and political spheres of influence.

The slavery system in Mauritania is deeply rooted in racist, sexist and class-based social dynamics that operate with the same level of subtlety. We begin to understand how the powerful in Mauritania can get away with denying the existence of slavery practices, when we realise how easily the dynamics underpinning it are also denied in our own societies.

Our work therefore involves exposing both the realities of slavery, and the ways the system is subtly, but powerfully, upheld.