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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Mauritania

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Mauritania, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa3c30.html [accessed 22 December 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.
MAURITANIA

 

Mauritania is an Islamic republic. The 1991 Constitution provides for a civilian government composed of a dominant executive branch, a Senate and National Assembly, and an independent judiciary. President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya has governed since 1984, first as head of a military junta, and since the 1992 election as head of a civilian government. President Taya won 62 percent of the vote in the four-way presidential contest, which was widely regarded as fraudulent. Most opposition parties boycotted the subsequent parliamentary elections. The President and the Government have strong military support.

The Government maintains order with regular armed forces, the National Guard, the Gendarmerie (a specialized corps of paramilitary police), and the police. The Ministry of Defense directs the armed forces and Gendarmerie; the Ministry of Interior directs the National Guard and police. The armed forces are responsible for national defense. The National Guard performs police functions throughout the country in areas in which city police are not present. The Gendarmerie is a paramilitary group responsible for maintenance of civil order in and outside metropolitan areas. Some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses.

Mauritania, with a population of 2.2 million, has a generally market-oriented economy based on subsistence farming, herding, and a small commercial sector. Drought, desertification, insect infestation, rapid urbanization, extensive unemployment, pervasive poverty, and a burdensome foreign debt handicap the economy. Inadequate recent rainfall has contributed to urbanization, further straining government finances. Annual per capita national income is estimated at $560. Mauritania receives foreign assistance from various bilateral and multilateral sources each year.

The Government's human rights record improved, but problems remain in certain areas. During January riots in Nouakchott, The authorities detained and subsequently released opposition leaders and forcibly broke up peaceful demonstrations to protest the detentions. Although in the case of the pro-Iraqi Baathists rounded up in October, the Government held public trials and defendants were represented by attorney, there were credible reports that the police tortured approximately a dozen persons during pretrial detention. According to credible sources, the trial was marred by abuses, including the conviction of some defendants on questionable evidence. The December convictions of Baathists for membership in an illegal political organization were subsequently overturned on appeal, and the persons released. The Government in November took an important step to resolve a serious abuse from the 1989-91 period, in which approximately 70,000 Mauritanians were expelled or fled, by authorizing the Mauritanian Red Crescent Association, with the technical assistance of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to assist the returnees from the refugee camps in Senegal. The Government has yet to address fully another major abuse from the 1989-91 period, when some 503 members of the military were killed, tortured and maimed, almost entirely from the Halpulaar ethnic group. In 1993 the Parliament passed an amnesty bill to preclude legal pursuit of those responsible. The Government has, however, compensated, but not apologized to most survivors and families of those killed. Democratic institutions are still rudimentary, and the Government circumscribes citizens' right to change their government.

Ethnic tensions persist, and many members of the Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof ethnic groups are underrepresented and feel excluded from effective political representation.

Although the Government has instituted some judicial reforms, the executive continues to influence the judiciary, and in practice the right to a fair trial continues to be restricted. Police often used brutal methods, arbitrary arrest, and prolongedÚÚand often incommunicadoÚÚdetention. Prison conditions are harsh and unhealthy. The Government continued to restrict political activity, seize publications and limit freedom of religion. Societal discrimination against women continues and female genital mutilation remains a serious concern.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings, but two persons are known to have died while in police custody. A Ghanaian arrested in June died after less than 24 hours in police custody; police stated that the cause of death was a drug overdose but would not allow an autopsy. Credible observers believe that police mistreatment was the cause of death.

In December a National Guard patrol fatally beat an army officer who protested to them their rough treatment of students in Aleg who were protesting price increases. The officer subsequently collapsed at guard headquarters and died en route to the hospital. Informed sources confirmed that beating was the cause of death.

Extrajudicial killings from past years, primarily of African-Mauritanians, remained unresolved. The principal example of such killing involves the 1990-91 deaths while in military custody of 503 largely Halpulaar and Soninke military personnel and civilians detained in the investigation of an alleged coup attempt. The military has not released the results of its 1991 internal investigation, and in 1993 the National Assembly passed an amnesty law which prevents any charges from being brought against members of the armed forces, security forces, or other citizens involved in the abuses committed between January 1990 and April 1992. In June 1993, the Government passed a law granting compensation to relatives of those who were killed. In July 1993 the Government began to pay compensation to widows and families of those killed.

The Government's failure to bring to justice officials who committed extrajudicial killings and other abuses has contributed to widespread popular dissatisfaction with the judicial system.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits torture and other forms of cruel or inhuman punishment, but the police continue on occasion to beat criminal suspects while in custody. Police used excessive force to break up peaceful demonstrations or disperse crowds. There were credible reports that a dozen or so of the 72 suspected pro-Iraqi Baathist sympathizers arrested in October were tortured by police during pretrial detention. Authorities rarely tried or punished persons suspected of committing such abuses. In July the Government suspended special security measures in the Guidimaka area and reduced security forces, resulting in fewer abuses. Later in July two army officers received unspecified sanctions for their failure to observe the new and more strict rules of conduct.

Prison conditions are harsh and do not meet minimum humanitarian standards. There is severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate food and medical treatment. The independent press reported the suspicious death in May of an inmate in Rosso; authorities cited natural causes, although witnesses claimed to have evidence of mistreatment. There was also a report of a detainee's death (see Section l.a.). The central prison in Nouakchott, which was built for a prison population of 200 men, now houses more than 700. Observers report better conditions at the women's prison and children's detention center in Nouakchott. A French nongovernmental organization (NGO), Pharmaciens sans Frontieres, which was asked in 1994 by the Government to coordinate international assistance for a large-scale project to improve overall prison conditions, has completed its plans and is soliciting international assistance. To ease overcrowding, the Government plans to construct a new prison in Akjoujt.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution provides for due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by an established tribunal. It stipulates that authorities cannot arrest, detain, prosecute, or punish anyone except as provided for under the law. Actual application of these safeguards continued to vary widely from case to case.

The law requires that courts review the legality of a person's detention within 48 hours of arrest. The police may extend the period for another 48 hours, and a prosecutor or court may detain persons for up to 30 days in national security cases. During the October crackdown against Baathist elements, the authorities held suspects incommunicado and without access to counsel in prearraignment detention for 14 days. They were subsequently released on appeal.

Only after the prosecutor submits charges can a suspect contact an attorney. There were credible reports that police detained other persons incommunicado for extended periods without charge. In January, following rioting in Nouakchott that was sparked by increases in bread prices, the authorities detained eight opposition political leaders for 2 weeks, holding them incommunicado in the interior of the country.

Pretrial detention is extensive, and approximately 50 percent of the prison population has not been tried. In one case, six individuals arrested in 1992 for the murder of a shopkeeper in the Southern town of Sory-Male were tried in 1995 after 3 years of pretrial detention; three defendants were found guilty and three were acquitted of the charges. Some indicted prisoners are released before trial without explanation; familial, tribal, or political connections may explain some of these cases. There is a provision for granting bail, but it is rarely used.

Occasional reports of arbitrary arrests and intimidation committed by security forces continued, particularly in communities along the Senegal River, but the extent of abuses declined.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary, in practice the executive branch exercises significant control and influence over the judiciary, which is only nominally independent. The Ministry of Justice appoints judges and subjects the courts to pressure in reaching verdicts. In addition to government influence over verdicts, the judicial system's fairness is limited by poorly educated and poorly trained judges who are susceptible to tribal, social, and financial pressures. Moreover, Islamic law (Shari'a), tribal relations, and personal connections continue to dominate some judicial decisions, particularly concerning personal status issues such as inheritance and divorce.

The formal judicial system includes a system of lower, middle, and upper level courts, each with specific jurisdictions. Bridging the traditional and modern systems of justice are 43 department-level tribunals staffed by Qadis, traditional Islamic magistrates trained primarily in Koranic law. Mauritanians seeking legal redress in civil matters must address themselves to one of these tribunals, which operate on the basis of both Shari'a and secular legal codes. Three regional courts of appeal handle challenges to decisions at the department and regional levels. Nominally independent, the Supreme Court is headed by a magistrate appointed to a 5-year term by the President. The Supreme Court reviews decisions and rulings made by the courts of appeal to determine their compliance with the law. Constitutional review is the purview of a six-member Constitutional Council, composed of three members named by the President, two by the National Assembly president, and one by the Senate president. Annual review of judicial decisions is undertaken by the Supreme Council of the Magistrature, over which the President presides; the President and senior vice president of the Supreme Court, the Minister of Justice, three magistrates, and representatives from the Senate and National Assembly are members of this Council. This year the Government began work to codify laws and establish a court of arbitration.

In theory, all defendants, regardless of the court or their ability to pay, have the legal right to representation by counsel during the proceedings, which are open to the public. There is no provision for public defenders for those unable to pay for their own counsel. The law provides that defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and appeal their sentences, but in practice, these rights are not regularly applied.

Because Shari'a is practiced, courts do not treat women as equals of men: for example, the testimony of two women is necessary to equal that of one man. In addition, in awarding an indemnity to the family of a woman who has been killed, the courts grant only half the amount they would award for a man's death. In addition, there are no female magistrates.

According to legal sources, the 10 persons convicted and serving prison terms in connection with the December Baathist trial may be regarded as political prisoners because their conviction on questionable evidence suggested political considerations played a role. The December convictions of Baathists for membership in an illegal political organization were subsequently overturned on appeal, and the persons released.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law requires judicial warrants in order to execute home searches, but the authorities often ignore this requirement. During the detention of opposition politicians following the January bread riots, authorities searched some opposition parties' offices without warrants. During the anti-Baathist crackdown, authorities conducted searches without warrants of offices of the Baathist Party and of a party member.

Government surveillance of dissidents and the political opposition is believed to continue, although the extent to which the Government used informants is unknown.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, but the Government continues to restrict these rights through prepublication press censorship by the Interior Ministry. NGO's and the privately owned press openly criticized the Government and its leaders. Antigovernment tracts, newsletters, and petitions circulate widely in Nouakchott and other towns.

All newspapers and political parties must register with the Ministry of the Interior. Although the Government did not refuse to register any journal, it permanently banned publication of two allegedly pro-Baathist Arabic language weekly newspapers, Akhbar Al-Usbou and Al-Ufuq Al-Arabi. Twenty-nine independent privately owned newspapers were published this year, many on an irregular basis. For the most part, these journals are weeklies, published in Arabic or French, and reach only a limited audience. However, the country's first independent daily, Mauritanie Nouvelles, began publication in September.

The Ministry of the Interior reviews all newspaper copy prior to publication. The Press Law provides that the Minister of the Interior can stop publication of material discrediting Islam or threatening national security. Although the Ministry did not excise material from journals or otherwise censor individual articles, the authorities seized 14 individual issues of various journals; by comparison, in 1994 at least 20 individual issues were seized. In some cases, the Government explained its action, by claiming that certain newspapers which it seized contained false allegations concerning neighboring countries which could impinge on national security. In other instances, the Government provided no specific reason for the seizures. The Government has expressed its willingness to work with the independent press on revision of the restrictive Press Law, with a view to circumscribing government censure and increasing press autonomy.

The electronic media (radio and television) and two of the country's three daily newspapers, Horizon and Chaab, are government owned and operated. Radio is the most important medium in reaching the public, and the official media strongly support government policies. Although the radio is required by law to provide equal broadcast time to all political parties during electoral campaigns, which it did during the 1994 municipal elections, opposition parties' access to the radio is sharply limited at other times.

The country's one university is government funded and operated. Academic freedom is generally respected, and there were no cases in which the government prevented professors from pursuing their research interests, from publication, or censored their lectures.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and for the most part the Government respects this right, although there were occasions when it restricted public gatherings. The law requires that all recognized political parties and NGO's apply to the local prefect for permission for large meetings or assemblies. Permission is generally freely and objectively granted, although on a few occasions the prefect denied permission for opposition gatherings. In January, security forces forcibly dispersed peaceful marches and demonstrations held following the bread riots to protest the detention of opposition leaders. In March police prevented the opposition Union for Democracy and Progress (UDP) from using vans to bring supporters to a rally, and prevented the party from publicizing the event. Also in March, the authorities denied another opposition party, the Union of Democratic Forces/New Era (UDF-EN) access to radio and television to publicize a rally.

The number of political parties, labor confederations, and NGO's continued to increase. Some 20 political parties and a wide array of NGO's, many of them highly critical of the Government, met openly, issued public statements, and chose their own leadership. The Government recognized a number of newly formed NGO's. It has not yet granted some NGO's official standing but allowed them to operate. It has not yet recognized, for example, the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights, claiming that it appeals to specific ethnic groups, namely the African-Mauritanian community, and is a potentially divisive force. However, the Government allows the association to function.

c. Freedom of Religion

Mauritania is an Islamic republic, and the law provides that all citizens are Sunni Muslims and prohibited from converting to another religion. The Government prohibits proselytizing by non-Muslims. Christian churches have been established in Nouakchott, Atar, Zourat, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. The expatriate community of Christians and the few Mauritanian citizens who are considered Christians from birth practice their religion openly and freely in these churches. Mauritanian Muslims freely attend Christian weddings and funerals when invited and on occasion have performed the formal witness role at Catholic weddings. The possession of bibles and other Christian religious materials in private homes is not illegal. There have been no reports in recent years of Mauritanians being harassed for possessing non-Islamic religious materials or for showing interest in obtaining information on Christianity.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for freedom of movement and residence within all parts of the territory, and guarantees the freedom to enter and leave. Historically there were few restrictions on travel in Mauritania's traditional nomadic society. With urbanization and automobile travel, the Government set up regular road checkpoints where the Gendarmerie checks papers of travelers. The Government also imposed a nighttime curfew for 8 days in Nouakchott and other cities in response to the bread riots. The number of curfews in the Senegal border region was significantly lower than in previous years, reflecting gradual normalization in the area and reduction in the frequency of cross-border raids. There were no reported cases of persons being denied passports for political reasons.

Of the approximately 70,000 African-Mauritanians who were expelled by Mauritania or fled to Senegal during the 1989-1990 crisis, an estimated 20,000 have returned. However, the estimated 65,000 refugees currently in refugee settlements in Senegal include 15,000 children born there since 1989. Results of a census conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in July have yet to be released. Many of the 15,000 Mauritanian Halpulaar who took refuge in Mali during the crisis have integrated into the population, and the UNHCR discontinued at the end of 1994 the limited assistance it had been providing to them.

According to the UNHCR, the Government is making satisfactory efforts to assist refugees returning from Senegal. Authorities are issuing identification cards to some, and returning land, houses, and even personal property when it can be located and identified. Many whole villages have returned. Many individuals have returned without formally leaving the refugee camps, to which they return periodically for free food and medical care.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government, but the Government circumscribes it in practice. The 1992 multiparty election of a civilian president ended 14 years of military rule, but both the opposition and international observers concluded that the elections were fraudulent. Following the elections, the military continued to provide strong support to the regime, and some members of the former Military Council, in addition to President Taya, remained in positions of power within the Government and armed forces.

Because the major opposition parties, including the UDF-EN, boycotted the 1992 National Assembly elections, the President's party, the Republican, Democratic and Social Party (PRDS), dominates the General Assembly, holding 66 of 79 seats. The PRDS and opposition political parties, as well as independent candidates, participated in the 1994 Senate elections, and PRDS candidates won all but 1 of the 18 seats at stake. Both the opposition and the government parties committed fraud during 1994 elections for Municipal Councils, which in turn elect Senators.

Women have the right to vote, and are active in election campaigns, although few are in positions of political leadership. There are seven women in senior government positions, including one Cabinet member and one mayor; there are no women members of the National Assembly. Halpulaars, Soninkes, and Wolofs are underrepresented in senior government positions. Of the Government's 24 ministerial posts, 2 incumbents are Haratine, 3 Halpulaar, and 1 Soninke; the remainder are either white (Moors) or of mixed white Moor/Haratine ethnicity (see Section 5.).

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There is an increasing number of human rights organizations. The oldest is the Mauritanian League for Human Rights, an independent but government-recognized body. The League has occasionally played a mediating role between the Government and representatives of the refugees in Senegal and victims of the 1990-91 military purge. A second and as yet unrecognized organization, the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH), while not affiliated with the opposition, has many opposition members. It has been more critical of the Government than the League, particularly on the unresolved abuses of the 1989-91 period. The AMDH called on the Government to be more forthcoming in addressing the vestiges of slavery (see Section 6.c.).

Various other organizations were established to address human rights issues. The pan-African organization Gerddes-Africa, or International Study and Research Group on Democracy and Economic and Social Development in Africa, established a branch in Mauritania. Two other groups, SOS-Esclaves and the National Committee for the Struggle Against the Vestiges of Slavery in Mauritania focus their efforts on overcoming the country's vestiges of slavery. The Committee of Solidarity with the Victims of Repression in Mauritania is concerned with the plight of the 1989 expellees. The Committee of the Widows focuses on the victims of the 1990-91 military purge and their families, and in August, the victims formed a new group, the Collective of Survivors. In September the Consultative Group for the Return of the Refugees was founded to promote the return of the remaining Mauritanian refugees in Senegal. These groups function openly, but their activities are somewhat circumscribed because they are not officially recognized (see Section 2.b.).

A delegation from the Interafrican Union for Human Rights made a 7-day visit to Mauritania in July; representatives of Freedom House also visited. Government officials met with both groups, which reported that authorities had allowed them to meet with whomever they wished. There were no reports of harassment or reprisal against Mauritanian interlocutors during or following the visits. In previous years, the Government and the Human Rights Watch/Africa, which has published articles strongly critical of the Government's human rights record, could not agree on the terms for a visit. The organization sought written government guarantees concerning freedom of movement and unimpeded access to citizens; the Government would only give verbal assurances.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for equality before the law for all citizens, regardless of race, national origin, sex, or social status, and prohibits racially or ethnically based propaganda. In practice, the Government often favors individuals on the basis of ethnic and tribal affiliation, social status, and political ties. Discrimination against women is endemic, although the situation is improving.

Women

Traditional forms of mistreatment of women continue, mostly in isolated rural communities, but these practices appear to be on the decline. Such mistreatment consists of forced feeding of adolescent girls (gavage) and female genital mutilation (see below.)

Human rights monitors and women lawyers report that physical mistreatment of women by their husbands is limited. The police and judiciary occasionally intervene in domestic abuses, but women in traditional society usually do not seek legal redress, relying instead upon family and ethnic group members to resolve domestic disputes.

Women have legal rights to property and child custody, and, among the more modern and urbanized population, these rights are recognized. In theory, marriage and divorce do not require the woman's consent. Polygyny exists and, as sanctioned by the teachings of Islam, a woman does not have the right to refuse her husband's wish to marry additional wives. However, it is common in Moor society for a woman to obtain, at the time of marriage, a contractual agreement that stipulates that her husband must grant her a divorce if he chooses an additional wife. In practice, polygyny and arranged marriages are increasingly rare, particularly among the Moor population. Women also frequently initiate a divorce.

There are no legal restrictions on the education of women, and increasing numbers of women attend university.

The Government seeks to open new employment opportunities for women in areas which are traditionally filled by men, such as health care, communications, police, and customs services.

The law provides that men and women receive equal pay for equal work. While not universally applied in practice, the two largest employers, the civil service and state mining company, respect this law. In the modern wage sector, women also receive generous family benefits, including 3 months of maternity leave.

Children

The Government does not require attendance at school and a lack of financial resources limits available educational opportunities. The law makes special provisions for the protection of children's welfare, and the Government has programs to care for abandoned children. These programs are, however, hampered by inadequate funding. The Government relies on foreign donors in such areas as child immunization. Moreover, it does not enforce existing child labor laws, and children perform a significant amount of labor in support of family activities. There are isolated but credible press reports of parents agreeing, in exchange for money, to send their young children to work in foreign countries. The most common cases are of boys aged 8 to 10 years sent to work as "jockeys" or herders in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health. It is performed most often on young girls and continues among all ethnic groups except the Wolof. Reportedly, 95 percent of Soninke and Halpulaar women undergo FGM, as do 30 percent of Moor women. For the most part, the least severe form of excision is practiced, although some groups practice infibulation, the most severe form of FGM. Evidence indicates that the practice of FGM is decreasing in the modern urban sector. The Government does not attempt to interfere with these practices, although public health workers try to educate women to the dangers of FGM and to the fact that FGM is not a requirement of Islam.

People with Disabilities

The law does not specifically provide for people with disabilities, and the Government does not mandate preference in employment or education or public accessibility for disabled persons. It does, however, provide some rehabilitation and other assistance for the disabled.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic and cultural tension and discrimination arise from the geographic and cultural line between traditionally nomadic Arabic-speaking (Hassaniya) Moor herders and African-Mauritanian sedentary cultivators of the Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof ethnic groups in the south. Although culturally homogeneous, the Moors are divided among numerous tribal groups and are racially distinguished as White Moors and Black Moors. The majority of what are known as Black Moors are Haratine, literally "one who has been freed," although some Black Moor families were never enslaved. The Halpulaar (the largest African-Mauritanian group), the Wolof, and the Soninke ethnic groups are concentrated in the south. "White" Moors, large numbers of whom are dark-skinned after centuries of intermarriage with members of Sub-Saharan African groups, dominate positions in government, business, and the clergy. The Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof ethnic groups are underrepresented in the military and security sectors.

Ethnic tensions surfaced dramatically in the mass expulsions of African-Mauritanians in 1989-90 and the purge of Afro-Mauritanians from the military in 1991. Not all have regained their positions.

The Constitution designates Arabic along with Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof as Mauritania's national languages. Successive government regimesÚÚboth civil and militaryÚÚhave pursued various policies of "Arabization" in the schools and in the workplace, which non-Arabic-speaking ethnic groups have protested.

Overt tensions between ethnic groups have lessened since the explosive ethnic violence of 1989 to 1991, when the Government conducted extrajudicial expulsions and purges of the security forces clearly based on ethnicity. Nevertheless, some hostility and bitterness persist between ethnic groups and there is little cultural identity or political cohesion among them.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of association and the right of citizens to join any political or labor organization. All workers except members of the military and police are free to associate in and establish unions at the local and national levels.

Prior to the 1993 amendment of the Labor Code, which repealed provisions restricting trade union pluralism, the government-controlled labor central, the Union of Mauritanian Workers (UTM), was the only labor confederation allowed by law. Since 1993 two new labor confederations have formed and the UTM, which many workers still view as closely allied with the Government and the PRDS, has lost ground to these. The Government recognized a new confederation in 1994, the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CGTM). The CGTM is not affiliated with any political party, although most of its members favor the opposition; it gained considerably in strength during the year. In 1994 it organized some new locals, largely from the heretofore unorganized self-employed workers, and has since attracted a number of member unions from the UTM. The CGTM has protested what it characterized as preferential treatment of the UTM by the Government. A third labor confederation, the Free Confederation of Mauritanian Workers, formed in March, has not yet been recognized by the Government, but it is allowed to function.

International trade union activity is minimal, but unions are free to affiliate with international bodies. The UTM participated in regional labor organizations, and the CGTM was accepted as a member of the Ghana-based United Organization of African Workers.

The bulk of the labor force is in the informal sector, with most workers engaged in subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry; only 25 percent are employed in the wage sector. However, nearly 90 percent of the industrial and commercial workers are organized. The law provides workers with the right to strike, and there were several strikes and partial work stoppages. In August CGTM-affiliated striking workers in a road construction firm were successful in efforts to improve their health benefits. Most strikes were settled quickly due to limited worker and union resources and government pressure. Moreover, the law provides for tripartite arbitration committees composed of union, business, and government representatives. Once all parties agree to arbitration, the committee may impose binding arbitration that automatically terminates any strike.

The Government did not petition the United States for reconsideration of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade privileges. The United States revoked GSP benefits in July 1993 for failure to respect freedom of association or to take steps to eliminate forced labor, including vestiges of slavery (see Section 6.c.).

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law provides that unions may freely organize workers without government or employer interference. Wages and other benefits are generally decided informally among individual unions, employers, and the Government. However, the Government plays a dominant role in the wage negotiations and in practice limits collective bargaining.

Laws provide workers protection against antiunion discrimination and employees or employers may bring labor disputes to three-person labor courts that are overseen jointly by the Ministries of Justice and Labor.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Mauritania has officially abolished slavery several times, most recently in 1980. Nevertheless, the legacy of slavery remains in its economic and psychological manifestations, and there are reports of persons continuing to live in conditions of involuntary servitude. Tens of thousands of persons whose ancestors were slaves still occupy positions of servitude and near-servitude, although such practices as coercive slavery and commerce in slaves appear to have virtually disappeared. In most cases, those remaining in a situation of unpaid or poorly paid servitude do so for lack of better alternatives, or lack of knowledge about their own status.

Some freed slaves (Haratine) have either stayed with, or returned to, their former masters and continue to provide labor in exchange for room, board, and other basic necessities. Others live independently but continue in a symbiotic relationship with their former masters, performing occasional paid or unpaid labor in exchange for food, clothing, and medical care. There are no reliable statistics for the number of Haratines who continue to work for the same families for which they worked before the emancipation of 1980, whether as paid or unpaid labor. Reports of cases of involuntary servitude are rare and unconfirmed.

Inheritance disputes between Haratines and the descendants of their former masters arose several times and were adjudicated in court. While most such disputes are decided in accordance with the law and rule that the descendants of the former slaves should inherit their property, the independent press reported one case in which a magistrate (Qadi) in Nema in 1994 ruled in favor of the former master; the implementation of this ruling was blocked in 1995 while the former slave's descendants appealed. In another instance, the Supreme Council of the Magistrature removed a magistrate from the bench because he ruled, contrary to the law, that a former master, rather than the former slave's descendants, should inherit the possessions of an ex-slave.

The El Hor (literally "The Free Man") Movement continued to pursue its agenda to eradicate the vestiges of slavery and its associated mentality among former slaves and slave holders. Two new NGO's, SOS-Esclaves and the more moderate National Committee for the Struggle Against the Vestiges of Slavery in Mauritania, were established in 1995 to promote former slaves' rights.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Education is not compulsory, and for financial reasons, 30 percent or more of school-age children do not regularly attend government schools. Labor law specifies that no child under the age of 13 may be employed in the agricultural sector without the permission of the Minister of Labor, nor under the age of 15 in the nonagricultural sector. The law provides that employed children of age 14 to 16 should receive 70 percent of the minimum wage, and those from age 17 to 18 should receive 90 percent of the minimum wage. The Labor Ministry's few inspectors provide only limited enforcement of child labor laws (see Section 5).

Young children in the countryside commonly pursue herding, cultivation, fishing, and other significant labor in support of their families' activities. In keeping with longstanding tradition, many children serve apprenticeships in small industries and in the informal sector.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage for adults is approximately $67 (Ouguiya 8,300) per month and has not been raised since October 1992. It is difficult for the average family to meet its minimum needs and maintain a decent standard of living at this salary. The standard, legal, nonagricultural workweek may not exceed either 40 hours or 6 days without overtime compensation, which is paid at rates that are graduated according to the number of supplemental hours worked. The Labor Directorate of the Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcement of the labor laws, but in practice inadequate funding limits the effectiveness of the Directorate's enforcement.

The Ministry of Labor is also responsible for enforcing safety standards but does so inconsistently, due to inadequate funding. In principle workers can remove themselves from hazardous conditions without risking loss of employment; in practice, they cannot.

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