Cable by Dazzlepod US Embassy Diplomatic Cables from WikiLeaks Released 251287 Cables (Sep 2, 2012)
SECRET (11322)
Reference ID 09NOUAKCHOTT711 (original text)
OriginEmbassy Nouakchott
ReleasedAug 30, 2011 01:44
CreatedNov 3, 2009 16:10
DE RUEHNK #0711/01 3071610
P 031610Z NOV 09
E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/02/2019 
      B. NOUAKCHOTT 486 
 1.  (C)  Summary:  A deeply entrenched social, cultural and 
economic phenomenon, slavery is present in both the Moor and 
Afro-Mauritanian communities and is linked to a caste system 
rather than exclusively racial considerations.  Slavery 
practices still exist in many forms -- from the most 
traditional, such as bondage, to more modern variations such 
as the exploitation of house servants -- and has both a rural 
and urban face.  The stigma surrounding slaves and former 
slaves spurs discrimination and lack of opportunities.  After 
passing the 2007 law criminalizing slavery, the Government of 
Mauritania (GIRM), distracted by a year-long political 
crisis, has deployed limited efforts to date to combat 
slavery practices, prosecute those who incur in slavery 
practices or improve the conditions of former slaves.  The 
government has also been negligent in applying any law that 
combats exploitation of slaves and former slaves, from labor 
to child abuse laws.  Along with political paralysis, a lack 
of strategy and political will from the government, the 
denial by the authorities that slavery is an issue, the 
disconnect between government and civil-society, insufficient 
awareness about the law, and inadequate funding and programs 
explain the 2007 law's limited impact to date.  In the short 
term, the government should be encouraged to cooperate with 
civil society, launch awareness campaigns, train judges, 
local authorities and police, and provide legal assistance 
and support to victims.  Measures in the mid and long term 
might include the creation of a special commission or agency 
focused on the reinsertion of victims of slavery, the 
creation of a social insertion fund, the opening of training 
centers and shelters for slaves, and the strengthening and 
application of labor laws as well as land tenure and 
inheritance laws.  As a societal problem, long term solutions 
depend on allocation of funding in education to empower the 
youth in vulnerable communities.  End summary. 
 2.  (C)  Slavery in Mauritania is a deeply engrained social, 
cultural and economic phenomenon present in both the Moor and 
Afro-Mauritanian populations that is linked to a caste system 
rather than exclusively racial considerations in that most 
slave-like relationships occur within an ethnic group (Moor 
on Moor or Afro-Mauritanian on Afro-Mauritanian).  Slavery, 
or "the state of being bound in servitude as the property of 
a slaveholder or household," is found in both rural and urban 
settings and has many faces, from the most traditional 
(bondage) to the more modern (unpaid and exploited house 
servants).  In Mauritania, both slaves and former slaves are 
discriminated against for belonging to a slave caste.  Slaves 
are among Mauritania's poorest, most vulnerable, and most 
disadvantaged populations. 
 3.  (C)  Slave families associated for generations with 
slave-owning families work as household servants, field-hands 
or shepherds.  Members of slave families often live in 
different households.  The atomization of slave families 
undermines the family support network and increases the 
slaves' socio-economic and psychological dependency on their 
masters.  The slave-master relationship is paternalistic. 
The master is everything to the slave because he is the 
source of food, clothing and shelter.  He also provides the 
slave with an identity.  Among the Moors, slaves take pride 
in belonging to their master's tribe.  Slaves -- who are 
often illiterate -- have no skills, no place to go and no 
means to be financially independent.  Even though they are, 
in theory and in law, free to go; they would have a hard time 
leaving their masters because their options are so limited 
and the dependency so entrenched.  The condition of slavery 
is deeply engrained in their psyche and often slaves do not 
know and cannot even imagine that their lives could be 
different or that there is a law in Mauritania that 
criminalizes slavery.  They are simply oblivious to their 
NOUAKCHOTT 00000711  002 OF 006 
rights as citizens and human beings.  Some slaves have 
benevolent masters and receive food and shelter in exchange 
for their work.  They are considered "part of the family" but 
this relationship has its limits because of its unbalanced 
nature.  Note:  According to tradition, masters have 
responsibilities towards their slaves and slaves expect their 
masters to protect them.  End note.  Anti-slavery advocates 
often face strong reluctance from victims of slavery in 
filing complaints.  As in every relationship based on 
dominance and submission, many slaves are exploited and 
mistreated.  Still today, masters lend their slaves' labor to 
other individuals, female slaves are sexually exploited and 
children are made to work and rarely receive an education. 
Slavery particularly affects women and children, who are the 
most vulnerable among the vulnerable.  Women of child-bearing 
age have a harder time emancipating because they are 
producers of slave labor and perceived as extremely valuable. 
 4.  (C)  Some slaves (legally liberated or not) have been 
formally emancipated from their masters for years but they 
often continue depending on them because they lack the means 
to live independently.  In the countryside, communities of 
former slaves work their masters' land in exchange for a 
share of the crop.  Land tenure conflicts are common because, 
despite having worked the land for decades, former slaves 
have no claims over it and no means of acquiring it.  Their 
masters have the power to evict them without explanation, 
compensation or alternative accommodations.  These 
communities are among the poorest in Mauritania and have 
limited access to health and education.  In the cities, 
emancipated slaves often continue working long hours for 
their former masters as servants or as guards for a derisory 
salary.  This accounts for a new, more modern form of 
exploitation that feeds off Mauritania's fragile labor laws. 
According to tradition, slaves cannot inherit.  As a result, 
disputes arise when masters or former masters claim their 
slaves' inheritance. 
 6.  (C)  The 2007 law against slavery has yielded no 
prosecutions.  In addition to the recently ended political 
logjam, the government has made limited progress in the fight 
against slavery for the following reasons: 
- Tacit complicity:  Slavery is a sensitive issue that 
touches the very core of the Mauritanian established social 
order, in which white Moors have a dominant role.  The 
establishment -- including the central government, provincial 
authorities such as walis and hakems, religious authorities, 
and judges -- is closely implicated in the problem and 
reluctant to tackle it.  White Moors are reluctant to subvert 
a subvert their priviledge and even if they attempt to, 
encounter strong resistance from powerful actors. 
-  Conflict over terminology and concepts:  The authorities 
and civil society use different terms to address the problem. 
 Government officials and imams talk about "les sequelles de 
l'esclavage," or the remnants of slavery while civil society 
speaks of slavery, or slavery practices, and the consequences 
of slavery.  Detractors of the term slavery argue that the 
slaves are not slaves because they are free to go if they do 
not want to remain with their masters.  These people dismiss 
the complexities of the slave/master relationship.  The 
ongoing existence or not of slavery practices in Mauritania 
is a contentious issue -- but almost everybody agrees on the 
social impact of the remnants of slavery.  As believers in 
the existence of slavery practices, civil society calls for 
specific programs targeting exploitation through slavery 
while the government mostly favors poverty reduction programs 
for populations that are disadvantaged due to their former 
slave status. 
- Lack of political will:  Many Mauritanians, particularly 
Moors, see the law as an "appeasement measure."  For them, 
the 2007 law is a final admission of the slavery problem that 
allows the country to move on.  They do not view the law as 
NOUAKCHOTT 00000711  003 OF 006 
something to be acted upon and there is a general reluctance 
to prosecute slave-masters.  Invariably, when slavery cases 
are brought to court, judges (almost exclusively White Moors) 
encourage the slave, his/her family and the masters to reach 
an agreement outside court.  There is equally a reluctance to 
apply other existing laws such as labor laws, 
child-protection laws or women's rights laws.  The charges 
are ultimately dropped and the case filed without further 
investigation.  Limited resources are devoted to the fight 
against slavery.  Recently, the government adopted a program 
to Eradicate the Effects of Slavery for 3.7 million USD (Ref 
A), which -- while substantial by Mauritanian budget 
standards -- is a very limited amount compared to the type of 
financial commitment necessary to solve the problem.  Civil 
society and slavery experts are not involved in this program 
and Gulnara Shahinian, United Nations special rapporteur on 
contemporary forms of slavery, told PolOff she feared this 
program was a typical case of "the government paying lip 
service to the international community."  PolOff plans to do 
a field visit of the program in the next few months. 
- Lack of awareness and resources on the part of slaves: 
First, many slaves ignore their rights and the fact that 
there is a law in Mauritania criminalizing slavery.  Second, 
slaves wishing to prosecute their masters are often 
illiterate and do not know how to navigate the legal system. 
In a country where legal assistance is non-existent, they 
depend on local NGOs to provide them with a lawyer and help 
them move through the legal procedures.  Slaves who file 
complaints are often subject to social pressure from their 
own family members and masters to drop charges. 
- Lack of support from religious authorities:  Almost 
unanimously, imams deny the existence of slavery in 
Mauritania.    It is rumored that many of them are 
slave-owners and rely on their slaves' labor for the upkeep 
of their properties and cattle.  Some imams reacted very 
strongly to PolOff's request to discuss slavery, accusing 
anti-slavery activists of stirring the ethnic pot and using 
the slavery cause to enrich themselves and put their NGOs on 
the international spotlight.  One imam told PolOff that the 
State Department's TIP report and anti-slavery efforts would 
instigate racial hatred in Mauritania. Other imams, while 
still reluctant to accept that slavery is a reality in 
Mauritania, agreed that imams could play an important role in 
helping slaves get over their "inferiority complexes" and the 
social stigma related to slavery. 
-  Disconnect between civil society and the government: 
Civil society is often accused by the establishment of 
exploiting the slavery issue for political and financial 
purposes.  The government resents civil society, convinced 
that activists' main focus is to demonstrate the government 
is a slave government.  The disconnect is such that civil 
society is rarely aware of government efforts.  Human Rights 
Commission Director Tourad Ould Abdel Malek, recently told 
PolOff the government was ready to launch a national strategy 
to fight slavery before the end of 2009.  When asked whether 
the government had consulted with civil society, Malek 
responded they had.  When asked when those consultations took 
place, he uncomfortably responded they had last consulted in 
- Reluctance to accept targeted programs and rejection of 
affirmative action:  Anti-slavery activists call for programs 
tailored to slaves and former slaves but the authorities and 
many Mauritanians strongly reject the idea.  In a country 
where poverty is rampant among all ethnicities, programs 
targeting one particular group are perceived as an injustice. 
 PolOff asked White Moor contacts if they thought opening 
literacy and vocational training centers specifically 
targeted towards haratines would be a good idea.  They 
pointed out such a measure would cause deep resentment as 
many in the Afro-Mauritanian and Moor communities are 
illiterate and also need professional training.  Affirmative 
action programs have the support of traditionally 
under-represented groups like Afro-Mauritanians and Haratines 
but tend to be rejected by the White Moors. 
NOUAKCHOTT 00000711  004 OF 006 
 7.  (C)  Short-term measures: 
- Encourage the government to apply existing laws:  Besides 
the 2007 law criminalizing slavery, Mauritania has a host of 
laws on forced labor, exploitation, children's rights, 
women's rights, etc.  Some civil rights activists think it 
would be a good first step for the government to start 
applying those laws and make public examples of those 
breaking them.  A few highly mediatized prosecutions for 
child abuse, exploitation and unpaid work, they argue, would 
discourage people from continuing those practices that affect 
- Fund authoritative studies on slavery:  According to 
special rapporteur Shahinian, it is crucial to fund 
independent, authoritative studies defining slavery, 
describing its forms, quantifying its social impact and the 
number of victims.  Establishing a comprehensive corpus of 
baseline studies will provide anti-slavery activists with 
irrefutable proof of the problem.  Achieving a better 
understanding the issue will help draft a comprehensive 
anti-slavery strategy and implement effective programs.  In 
2010, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) will be 
conducting a global study on slavery in Mauritania within the 
framework of a conflict prevention program.  Post is hoping 
to fund a UNICEF study focusing on slavery among women and 
children that would provide us a factual baseline for 
- De-personalize the issue:  Slavery in Mauritania is an 
extremely sensitive issue that touches the very core of the 
established social order.  Moors feel attacked when the issue 
of slavery is brought up and as a result will deny the very 
existence of slavery and will obstruct or try to dilute any 
anti-slavery efforts.  Some think it would be helpful to stop 
talking about slavery but talk instead about slavery 
practices and the consequences of slavery.  It is important 
to avoid reducing slavery to a racial domination issue (white 
versus black issue) as this is incorrect and could be 
potentially explosive.  Note: Not all Black Moors are or were 
slaves.  Black Afro-Mauritanians, particularly the haalpular 
have black slaves.  In the past, there were white slaves as 
well.  End note.  Slavery is more of a caste problem than a 
strictly racial problem.  Also, it is important to remember 
that any discussion on slavery should touch not only on 
slavery among the Moors but also among the Afro-Mauritanian 
population.  The problem of slavery should be tackled within 
the global categories of fight against trafficking and the 
defense of human, labor, women and children rights.  An 
emphasis should be placed on the fight against abuse and 
- Encourage dialogue between civil society and government: 
For anti-slavery programs to be successful, there has to be 
increased coordination between civil society and the 
government in drafting a strategy and creating, implementing 
and monitoring programs.  Post is working on funding a forum 
to encourage civil society and the government to work 
- Conduct awareness campaigns:  Experts point at the 
necessity of conducting targeted awareness campaigns among 
slaves, former slaves, masters and the general population. 
The purpose is to ensure the population is aware that slavery 
practices constitute a crime and that slaves have rights that 
are protected by the law.  Increasing awareness of the rights 
of women, children and labor rights would also be useful.  It 
would also be beneficial to recruit local religious leaders 
to speak against exploitation and abuse and the 
stigmatization of slaves and lower castes like the ironsmiths 
and the griots. 
- Provide legal assistance programs:  The government should 
be encouraged to provide slaves wishing to bring their cases 
to court legal assistance at no cost. 
NOUAKCHOTT 00000711  005 OF 006 
- Train judges and local authorities (walis and hakems): 
Judicial and local authorities should be trained on the 
implications of the law criminalizing slavery and the 
importance of applying it.  The central government needs to 
send a clear message that those refusing to apply the law 
will be held accountable. 
- Stand up an anti-slavery brigade:  Elements of the police 
and gendarmerie should be trained to investigate slavery 
cases and gather evidence for the court in urban and rural 
areas (Ref B).  Their sole presence will serve as a signal to 
the population that the government is serious in its 
commitment to fight slavery. 
- Train specialized social workers:  A group of social 
workers specialized in slavery practices, including child 
slavery, should be trained and deployed every time a slavery 
case is brought to light.  These social workers should work 
in conjunction with the police to conduct a comprehensive 
- Assistance to victims:  Remove children and former slaves 
from situations of exploitation and refer them to government 
or NGO authorities that can provide them with care.  Such 
care should include any food, shelter, security, counseling, 
supervision, and family reunification assistance needed by 
the victims. 
- Draft a national strategy against slavery:  The government 
should be encouraged to draft a five-year national strategy 
against slavery in consultation with civil society. 
 9.  (C)  Mid and long-term initiatives: 
-  Create an independent national agency or commission for 
the reinsertion of slaves and former slaves and a social 
insertion fund: Many anti-slavery activists and experts agree 
it would be helpful if an agency or commission could oversee 
the implementation of the anti-slavery strategy in 
coordination with other competent ministries.  The agency 
would also be responsible for monitoring the application of 
the law criminalizing slavery.  A social insertion fund would 
help fund programs towards the social reinsertion of victims. 
- Build shelters:  Shelters providing temporary housing and 
social reinsertion services for victims of slavery are 
necessary as many slaves do not have a place to go when they 
leave their masters.  Women and children would particularly 
benefit from these shelters. 
- Targeted education and training opportunities for slaves: 
Slaves are often illiterate and only know how to work as 
household servants, field-workers or shepherds.  Literacy 
programs as well as vocational training would be beneficial 
to provide them the means to live independently and escape 
the spiral of exploitation. This measure would be contentions 
as many think social programs should be open to all 
ethnicities and groups. It is true that in the interior of 
the country, "all are united in poverty, including the White 
- Encourage the state to become a civil party in slavery 
cases:  Currently, many slaves withdraw their complaints 
after caving in to social pressure and manipulation from 
their families, masters and judges.  NGOs would like the 
state of Mauritania, through the prosecutor, to become a 
civil party in any slavery cases as this would allow 
investigations to continue and slave-owners to be punished. 
- Strengthen and enforce labor laws, child protection laws 
and women's rights:  Labor laws pertaining to contracts, 
minimum wage etc. should be strengthened and enforced to 
ensure that former slaves do not become victims of modern 
forms of exploitation.  Child protection laws and women's 
rights could serve as a further guarantee to fight against 
NOUAKCHOTT 00000711  006 OF 006 
- Affirmative action programs:  The implementation of 
affirmative action programs for Haratines and 
Afro-Mauritanians would help traditionally under-represented 
groups access government positions.  This measure would also 
be controversial. 
- Address land tenure issues - Create programs to solve 
land-tenure disputes and provide slaves access to land. 
Strengthen land tenure laws. 
- Citizenship programs -  cultivate the notion of national 
communities and the idea of Mauritania as a state that 
regroups citizens from different ethnicities who are equal. 
Fight against tribalism and castes. 
- Target education to bolster vulnerable groups - Some 
anti-slavery advocates see adult members of vulnerable castes 
as already locked into an inferiority mindset.  For them, 
only an emphasis on education of youth will allow these 
castes to break the chain of inferiority. 
 10.  (C)  President Aziz stated that his government planned 
to improve Mauritania's human rights record and this is a 
crucial area where the Mauritanians could invest resources 
and efforts.  Slavery in Mauritania will not be solved until 
the authorities accept there is a problem and muster the 
political will necessary to tackle it.  Post will continue to 
engage the GIRM at all levels and will partner with civil 
society and others to encourage and facilitate and effective 
response.  End comment.