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Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Mauritania

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1991
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Mauritania, 1 January 1991, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca2a0.html [accessed 22 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

Virtually closed to the outside world, Mauritania has been largely beyond the reach of international observation since its independence from France in 1960. It was briefly in the headlines in April 1989 when a border incident between Senegal and Mauritania sparked off communal violence that left hundreds dead.

Mauritania is an artificial creation linking the nomadic population of Arab/Berber descendants, known as beydanes or "white men," living in the north and the sedentary black ethnic communities living in the south.20 Prior to independence, blacks, with their more settled lifestyle and greater access to education, dominated the civil service and the professions. Since independence, however, political power has been concentrated in the hands of the beydane community, which has subjected the country's black population to gross human rights abuses and denied it equality of opportunity in every aspect of public life. Blacks face discrimination in employment in the civil service; the administration of justice before the regular courts and religious courts; access to loans and credits from banks and state-owned enterprises; and opportunities for education and vocational training.

The government's decision to make the beydanes' language, Arabic, the official language facilitates discrimination both in the school system and employment, since Arabic is not the mother tongue of blacks, other than former and current slaves. There is only one black judge on the religious courts, and only one black head of a major mosque. Black religious leaders are given smaller government subsidies for the maintenance of their mosques and religious schools than their beydane counterparts receive. Even in prison, black political prisoners and petty criminals are subjected to special punishments and inferior conditions of detention.

To stave off war in April 1989, Mauritania and Senegal decided to repatriate each other's citizens. The Mauritanian government took advantage of the agreement to further the country's "Arabization" by getting rid of its black population. While the mass expulsions abated in the last four months of 1989, the government stepped up its campaign of deportations in early 1990 and continued them throughout the year. In towns, people were arrested in their homes and offices, or simply on the street, and deported. They were stripped of their identity papers and any valuables in their possession and, often, in their homes. Prior to deportation, prominent citizens who the authorities assumed would not flee were requested to come to police stations for at times daily questioning about black opposition groups based in Senegal, or about their "Senegalese ancestors," as a way of establishing their foreign status or simply as a means of intimidation. Despite government claims that only those who had obtained their Mauritanian citizenship fraudulently would be expelled, those deported for the most part were people who had lived in Mauritania for generations; their identity papers had either been confiscated or torn up by the authorities as they were being expelled. Many deportees who tried to return to Mauritania were either arrested and detained or expelled back to Senegal.

The government also continued in 1990 the policy it had begun in 1989 of denying blacks passports and not issuing blacks identity papers. Some blacks were arrested after asking for identity papers. Some individual members of the beydane community exploited the government's policies to settle private scores – dispossessing black farmers of their land, crippling black business competition and, on a wide scale, refusing wages to black employees and domestic servants. Some of the blacks who complained were arrested or expelled to Senegal.

In the villages along the Senegal River Valley, either the army forcibly evicted entire villages, or repeated army atrocities encouraged villagers to flee. These villagers, too, were subjected to vindictive searches, their possessions and livestock were confiscated, and often their entire village was burned. For example, in April, eight hundred people, the population of two villages, fled to a refugee camp in Bekel, Senegal, after threats from the army. A night curfew along the valley, imposed after the events of 1989, continued throughout 1990. Beginning in about March 1990, an unofficial state of emergency was in place along the valley, particularly in villages that the government suspected of political agitation.

There was a dramatic escalation in 1990 of the number of black Mauritanians killed by the army, particularly along the valley. Sometimes, the attacks were reprisals for attacks by the principal Mauritanian armed opposition movement, the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM), based in Senegal. Other times, the motive was to show black Mauritanians living on the Mauritanian side of the valley the cost of assisting blacks who return secretly to collect their livestock, or to discourage blacks from crossing the river from Senegal and swelling the growing black opposition in Mauritania. For example:

  • On March 6, Abdoul Boucka N'diaye, a former soldier, and Mamadou Moussa N'diaye, his 20-year-old nephew, were killed in the village of Djowol. They had gone fishing when they were arrested by the national guard, who took them to a military camp just outside the village and slit their throats.
  • On April 10, soldiers and armed Haratines (black former slaves) arrested seven people in the village of Moudji, including Silly Youmé Bâ and Mamadou Demba Sall. All seven were executed; three were shot and four had their heads crushed by stones. When their bodies were found, all had their hands tied behind their backs.21
  • On April 17, Tierno Saybatou Bâ, a religious leader, was shot dead in the village of Ngoral Gidala as he bathed in the river. He was accused of planning to cross over to Senegal to join the political opposition.
  • On or about October 27, a young man was arrested in the village of Souboualla, near Kaeda, and accused of being a member of FLAM. He was beheaded, and his head was taken to his village, where the villagers were forced to dance around it.

A substantial percentage of the people expelled and killed were members of the Peul ethnic group. For the last several years, Peuls have been the primary target of the Mauritanian government's campaign of persecution against its black citizens, apparently because of the number of prominent positions they occupied. At the end of 1990, the government began to target the Soninke ethnic group.

By year's end, over 50,000 expelled black Mauritanians were registered at refugee camps, and 30,000 to 40,000 more were living in Senegalese towns and villages. Another 25,000 to 30,000 had sought sanctuary in Mali, where the government refused to recognize them as refugees.

One positive development was the release in late September of over a dozen black political prisoners arrested in September and October 1986, tortured and sentenced to four- and five-year prison terms after a grossly unfair trial. They had been accused of being members of FLAM and implicated in the publication in April 1986 of a document called "The Manifesto of the Oppressed Black," which detailed a wide range of black grievances. They had been given a year's remission at the end of 1989. They included Ibrahima Sall, a former lecturer in history at the University of Nouakchott, and Ibrahima Sarr, a journalist. Against this encouraging development was the government's refusal to release 35 black army officers sentenced in October 1987 to 20 years' imprisonment for allegedly having been part of a coup attempt. They were held at Aioun el Atrouss, a remote fortress. Many of the prisoners' families had been deported.

The end of 1990 saw hundreds of blacks arrested throughout the country, following a government announcement on December 6 that it had foiled a coup attempt planned for November 27. Several of those arrested were said to have died under torture. Some were released after days or weeks in detention, but the others were due to be tried under charges of treason, which carry the death penalty. The Mauritanian government accused Senegal of backing the coup attempt, which Senegal denied. Among those arrested were black members of Mauritania's small navy, customs officials, members of the army, police officials, civil servants, as well as hundreds of ordinary civilians. Most of the military officers and soldiers arrested are from the Soninke ethnic group and include: six senior officers working for the navy at Kadei; three teachers working at a military training school at Atar; a member of the National Guard at Nouadhibou; and many military personnel and others working as doctors and nurses at Nouadhibou naval base. Others who came from other ethnic groups were also arrested at other military installations. It was impossible to calculate the number who were originally arrested or those who remained in detention at year's end. Those detained were rumored to be held at a military barracks at Jereida. Other reports indicated that they were being held at a military camp called Mamekhare.

It was impossible to take the government's claim of a coup attempt seriously. First, the charges were announced only in December, even though the arrests began in mid-October. Second, the number of black army officers and rank-and-file soldiers had been drastically reduced since the last alleged coup attempt by black army officers in October 1987. After that, blacks were purged from the army, no new black recruits were hired, and those blacks that remained were disarmed. Black members of the army, police force, National Guard, various security services and the customs service were also prominent among the black professionals who were deported. Third, the government identified Mauritania's navy – a relatively insignificant force – as the chief architect of the coup, again suggesting that the arrests were in fact part of the government's broader policy of discriminating against the country's black population.

The existence of black slaves who belong to beydane masters has existed for centuries in Mauritania. July 5, 1990 marked the ten-year anniversary of the latest formal abolition of slavery in Mauritania; slavery had previously been abolished in 1905 and again in 1961. Unfortunately, none of these official terminations eradicated slavery in practice, particularly in the countryside, where the institution is still widespread. Slavery continues because legislative enactments were not accompanied by initiatives in the economic and social field. Although slaves are no longer sold on the open market, sales continued through discreet arrangements, such as "exchanges" or the giving of lifelong "presents." Slaves have no legal rights, and generally are not permitted to marry, have a family, attend school or go to mosque. They are routinely tortured and subjected to acts of appalling cruelty as punishment for such offenses as disobeying their master or attempting to escape.

US Policy

Like most other foreign governments and international organizations involved in trying to resolve the dispute between Mauritania and Senegal,22 the Bush administration focused its attention on the international aspects of the dispute. Presumably to encourage the two sides to negotiate, the administration avoided any step that would alienate the Mauritanian government. The result was a general failure to speak out publicly about the discrimination against blacks in Mauritania which lies at the heart of the conflict between the two countries.

There were two exceptions to this policy of silence. First, in December 1989, Janet Mullins, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, wrote to Rep. Gus Yatron, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, stating:

At the conflict's outset, the US Government urged both Senegal and Mauritania to halt the violence and expulsions and seek diplomatic solutions to the problems that caused them. Our Embassy in Nouakchott has expressed to the Mauritanian government in strong terms on numerous occasions our concern over the clear violations of human rights which occurred there. Senior State Department officials have visited Senegal and Mauritania to assess the problems and have stressed to the authorities the need to respect human rights. Mauritania has now stopped expelling its black citizens and there have been no recent reports of major human rights violations.23

Second, the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989, published in February 1990, included a well informed chapter on Mauritania which bluntly described a wide range of institutionalized abuses against the country's black population, including politically motivated killings, torture, unfair trials, deportation without due process, the dismissal of blacks from the civil service, the army and other professions, and the discrimination against blacks in employment, religion and access to land. The report was equally frank and informative about the lack of political rights for all Mauritanian citizens, highlighting the domination of the political process by the military, the absence of opportunities to exercise freedom of assembly and association despite legal guarantees, crippling restrictions on freedom of expression, government domination of the media, and the unfair nature of trials before the State Security Court, which tries offenses against state security. Country reports in previous years have also been frank in their criticisms of the government's human rights record, though not as detailed as the report issued in 1990.

The total US aid to Mauritania for fiscal year 1990 was approximately $6 million. This included $590,000 in development assistance, some $5 million in food aid (PL 480) and $124,000 in military training (IMET). For FY91, the administration requested roughly similar amounts of aid. There appeared to be some discussion at year's end that these figures would be reduced in light of Mauritania's close relations with Iraq.

The Work of Africa Watch

Having been refused permission to visit Mauritania, a representative of Africa Watch spent a month in Senegal in May and June, interviewing a wide range of black Mauritanians in the cities and throughout the camps in the Senegal River Valley. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the last abolition of slavery on July 5, Africa Watch published a detailed newsletter highlighting the largely cosmetic nature of the abolition and documenting the continued existence of slavery in Mauritania. Africa Watch published an article in June in The Guardian of London detailing the killing, deportation and persecution of black Mauritanians, and an article in August in The Christian Science Monitor discussing the persistence of slavery despite its legal abolition.


20 The blacks in the south are members of four ethnic groups – the Halpulaar, Soninke, Wolof and Bambara – which together make up roughly 40 percent of Mauritania's population. About another 20 percent are black slaves and former slaves of the beydane community who share its culture and identify politically with their former masters. To distance black from black and to weaken blacks as a political force, the government has used these current and former slaves in its repression of blacks from the south.

21 Amnesty International, "Mauritania: Human Rights Violations in the Senegal River Valley," October 1990, p. 10.

22 These include the Organization of African Unity, which has been involved from the beginning, and the European Community/Africa-Caribbean-Pacific, which in October 1990 appointed the former Belgian Prime Minister, Leo Tindemans, as a mediator.

23 While the deportations had tapered off at the end of 1989, they escalated again in early 1990 and continued throughout the year.

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