Last Updated: Thursday, 10 July 2014, 16:05 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Mauritania

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1998
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Mauritania, 30 January 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa8027.html [accessed 11 July 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.

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.

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 multiparty election as head of a civilian government. On December 12, Taya was reelected President, receiving over

90 percent of the vote, running against four other candidates. The election was widely regarded as fraudulent and was boycotted by the Opposition Front (a five party coalition). Most opposition parties boycotted earlier parliamentary elections, but participated in Senate elections in 1994 and 1996; they gained only one seat. In the country's first multiparty legislative elections held in October 1996, 1 opposition and 6 independent candidates were elected to the 79-member National Assembly. The outcome of these elections was marred by fraud on all sides and pervasive government intervention, representing a backward step in the country's efforts to establish a pluralist democracy. The judiciary is subject to significant pressure from the executive through its ability to influence judges.

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. Security forces are under the full control of the Government and responsible to it. Some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses.

Mauritania, with a population of 2.4 million, has a generally market-oriented economy based on subsistence farming, herding, and a small commercial sector. Fish and iron ore are the country's main export-earners. Drought, desertification, insect infestation, rapid urbanization, extensive unemployment, pervasive poverty, and a burdensome foreign debt handicap the economy. Severe drought in 1996-1997 fueled urbanization, further straining government finances. Annual per capita national income has declined in recent years and is estimated at $503 (1996 figure). Mauritania receives foreign assistance from bilateral and multilateral sources. A small elite controls much of the country's wealth and commerce.

The Government's human rights record remained poor, and problems remain in certain areas. Democratic institutions remain rudimentary and the Government circumscribes citizens' ability to change their government. Police at times used excessive force, beat or otherwise abused detainees, and used arbitrary arrest, incommunicado prearraignment detention, and illegal searches. The Government failed to bring to justice officials who commit abuses. Prison conditions are harsh and unhealthy. Pretrial detention is often very lengthy. Although the Government instituted judicial programs and training, the executive continued to exercise significant pressure on the judiciary, and in practice the right to a fair trial was restricted. The Government suspended for lack of professionalism four judges who refused to recognize the rights of former slaves. The Government broadened the scope for opposition activity and improved access to government-owned media during the election campaign, but it continued to seize and suspend some publications, and limit freedom of religion. Societal discrimination against women continued, and female genital mutilation remained a serious problem despite government efforts to halt the practice. Ethnic tensions are gradually easing, but the Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof ethnic groups are underrepresented in political life and some feel excluded from effective political representation.

The Government continued efforts to resolve a serious abuse from the 1989-91 period, in which approximately 70,000 Mauritanians were expelled or fled, by facilitating cooperation between the Mauritanian Red Crescent Association and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to assist returnees from the refugee camps in Senegal. The Government estimates that 30,000-35,000 have returned; the UNHCR documented 25,970 total returnees to four provinces along the Senegal River, but believes that the total number of returnees is significantly higher. The Government failed to address fully another major abuse from the 1989-1991 period, when 503 members of the military, mainly from the Halpulaar ethnic group, were killed, tortured, and maimed. The Government in earlier years gave pensions to the documented widows of those killed, but not to undocumented individuals claiming to be additional wives. In 1996 the Government extended that benefit to some of those who survived the purge. Further action on alleged wives, absent documentation, appears unlikely. A 1993 amnesty law precludes legal pursuit of those responsible for the killings, and the Government does not acknowledge responsibility or wrongdoing nor has it provided honorable discharge papers to survivors or other compensation to families of those killed.

A system of officially sanctioned slavery in which government and society join to force individuals to serve masters does not exist; however, slavery in the form of unofficial voluntary or forced and involuntary servitude persists. Many persons continue to live in conditions of unofficial paid or unpaid servitude and many persons still consider themselves to be slaves.

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.

On April 11, gendarmes shot a man crossing the Senegal River from Senegal to Mauritania at Bababe, in the company of two others. He died after being transferred to the military hospital in Nouakchott. The Government maintained that he was a thief and smuggler. A human rights group reported that the man knew the gendarmes and was shot because he had refused to pay them a bribe (see Section l.c.).

On November 17, the Coast Guard fired on Senegalese fishermen in Mauritanian waters, killing 1 person and wounding as many as 10. The Coast Guard called on the men to stop but they did not. The individual died while trying to flee.

Extrajudicial killings from past years remained unresolved, principally 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. In 1993, the Government began to provide pension benefits to some of the widows and families of those killed, and in 1996 the Government recognized the prior government service of some of the civilian survivors and began to pay them pensions. The military has not released the results of its 1991 internal investigation, and in 1993 Parliament passed an amnesty bill to preclude legal pursuit of those responsible. The Government has not acknowledged responsibility or wrongdoing nor has it provided honorable discharge papers to survivors to facilitate alternative employment and their reintegration into society.

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. There were credible reports that police tortured some of those arrested in June 1996 for drug trafficking during pretrial detention, however, there are no reports of such abuse during the year. Methods of torture included beatings and around the clock questioning. Authorities have not tried or punished persons suspected of committing such abuses. Police in some instances used force to break up peaceful demonstrations or disperse crowds. Military forces along the Senegal River used excessive force against individuals suspected of smuggling. Authorities have not tried or punished persons suspected of committing such abuses. The Government's failure to bring to justice officials who commit abuses and fail to observe legal procedures has contributed to the widespread belief that security officials are a force apart from government authority and not subject to legal restraints. The armed forces produced in May and distributed to troops a guide on proper conduct for soldiers, under the auspices of the Mauritanian Red Crescent.

Prison conditions are harsh and do not meet minimum international standards. There is severe overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate medical treatment. The independent press and human rights activists periodically report the deaths of prison inmates; authorities cite natural causes, although witnesses claimed to have evidence of mistreatment. Prisoners from European countries receive privileged treatment but those from other African countries are often treated worse than Mauritanians. The central prison in Nouakchott, built for a prison population of 300 men, now houses more than

650 prisoners. Observers report better conditions at the women's prison and children's detention center in Nouakchott. The Government is enlarging the central prison in Nouakchott, constructing individual and group cells, lodging for prison wardens, an infirmary, a sports recreation area, and sanitary facilities. A new prison in Akjoujt is nearing completion.

The Government permits prison visits by diplomats and human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution stipulates that authorities cannot arrest, detain, prosecute, or punish anyone except as provided for under the law; however, at times police arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens. The actual application of the constitutional 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. Only after the prosecutor submits charges does a suspect have the right to contact an attorney.

Human rights activists report that police are showing greater respect for legally mandated procedures. Pretrial detention after arraignment is extensive. According to an appeal written by prisoners in the Nouakchott prison, only 130 of the inmates have received a sentence, and 450 have not received a trial, but observers believe that the actual number to be lower.

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.

From January 21-30, police arrested nine individuals suspected of illegal ties to Libya, one of them the leader of the opposition political party, Action pour le Changement. They were arrested under a 1991 decree stating that political parties may not cooperate with foreign parties in a way incompatible with the law. Initially held under incommunicado prearraignment detention, three were released 8 days after their arrest; another was released later. Five stood trial in February and received sentences ranging from a 3-week suspended sentence to 6 months in jail. An appeals court overturned four of the five convictions in April. The fifth person served out his 6-month sentence.

In May security forces detained and approximately 60 university students for their involvement in student protests at the University of Nouakchott. Eleven of these students were then sent to their villages and held under house arrest there. All were released at the end of the school term in June without being able to take their final examinations. Security forces reportedly repeatedly arrested and later released a few other students.

In April the Government detained under house arrest 15 teachers' union officials; all were released by July (see Section 6.b.).

Occasional reports of arbitrary arrests and intimidation committed by security forces continued, particularly among returned refugees in communities along the Senegal River, but the extent of abuses declined, as the Government, in conjunction with the UNHCR and Mauritanian Red Crescent society, resettled many returnees (see Section 2.d.). Local authorities often detained local residents involved in land disputes, or in disputes between farmers and nomads along the river.

The Government does not employ forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary, in practice the executive branch exercises significant pressure on the judiciary through its ability to appoint and influence judges. In addition the judicial system's fairness is limited by poorly educated and poorly trained judges who are susceptible to social, financial, tribal, and personal pressures.

There is a single system of courts, having introduced a modernized legal system that conforms with the principles of Shari'a. The judicial system includes lower, middle, and upper level courts, each with specific jurisdictions. Departmental, regional, and labor tribunals are the principal instances at the lower level. The 53 departmental tribunals, composed of a president and magistrates with traditional Islamic legal training, hear civil cases involving sums less than

$72 (10,000 UM) and family issues (e.g., domestic, divorce, and inheritance cases). Thirteen regional tribunals accept appeals in commercial and civil matters from the departmental tribunals and hear misdemeanors. Three labor tribunals, composed of a president and two assessors (one who represents labor and one who represents employers), serve as final arbiters for labor disputes. At the middle level, three courts of appeal, each with two chambers (a civil and commercial chamber, and a mixed chamber) hear appeals from the regional courts and have original jurisdiction for felonies. 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 and procedure. 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. The annual review is intended to determine whether courts applied the law correctly and followed proper procedures.

The Constitution provides for due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by an established tribunal. 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. If defendants lack the ability to pay for counsel, the court appoints an attorney, from a list prepared by the National Order of Lawyers, who provides defense free of charge. The law provides that defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and appeal their sentences, and these rights are generally observed in practice.

Because Shari'a provides the legal principles upon which the law and legal procedure are based, courts do not in all cases 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. There are no female magistrates. However, for commercial and other modern issues not specifically addressed by Shari'a, the law and courts treat women and men equally.

With international assistance, the Government continued a program to improve judicial performance and independence, consisting of organizing all laws and statutes into a single reference text and training officials throughout the justice system. Three training programs began to improve the skills of magistrates. In February the Government held its first workshop on judicial reform. Two hundred judicial officials have also embarked on training. Thirty new judges, all university law graduates, began a 2-year training program at the National School of Administration. Within President Taya's current term, the investment, administration, commercial, civil, and arbitrage/banking codes are to be updated and made cohesive. Popular dissatisfaction with the judicial system and the belief that security officials can commit abuses with impunity persisted.

Early in 1997, the Government formally suspended four magistrates for lack of professionalism, because in custody cases involving the children of slaves, they had awarded custody to the fathers, who were also the former masters in disregard of the law. The decision dated from December 28, 1996, but was published in the Journal Officiel on March 30.

A Mauritanian arrested in January as part of the sweep of pro-Libyan activists was sentenced in February to a 6-month prison term for activity opposed to Mauritania's relations with Israel.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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.

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 of 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 circulated 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 suspended from April 26 to May 25 the right to publish of the independent weekly, Mauritanie Nouvelles, seized its September 25 to October 5 editions, and again suspended it in October for 3 months. On June 23, La Verite and its Arabic version, Al-Bushra, both known to be close to the Government, were shut down permanently and their assets seized. Fourteen instances of censorship involving 8 newspapers also took place, compared with 18 in 1996.

At least 42 independent, privately owned newspapers, including 3 new French language and 14 new Arabic language publications, appeared or reappeared during the year, many on an irregular basis. These journals are weeklies, published in Arabic or French, and reach limited audiences. Mauritanie Nouvelles introduced an Arabic version in July. Readership of the independent press increased, in particular during the electoral period. Independent journals reported openly and critically on the opposition and government alike, and published party declarations and tracts without government censure or restraint. The President's Ramadan speech in January launched a widespread, open debate on slavery. Several hundred newspaper articles on the subject subsequently appeared without censure; one was censored by the Government.

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 17 individual issues of various journals; by comparison, in 1996, 23 individual issues were seized. The Government provided no specific reason for the seizures. A new regulation in August mandated that newspapers and journals also must be cleared through the Ministry of Justice prior to publication, with two copies for the public prosecutor's office and five for other Ministry of Justice officials. The Ministry authorizes sales and distribution within 2 to 3 days.

The electronic media (radio and television) and two daily newspapers, Horizons 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. During the presidential election campaign, the Government gave all five candidates equal access to its two newspapers and to the electronic media; for the first time, citizens heard or read criticisms of both the Government and the President in these media and not just in the independent newspapers. Opposition parties' access to government radio broadcast facilities at other times is limited, but Radio France International broadcasts interviews with government opponents on FM. Citizens can watch television broadcasts on stations from France, the United States, and other Arab countries without special antennae. The Government denied private applications to establish radio stations.

The one university is government funded and operated. Academic freedom is generally respected, and there were no cases in which the Government prevented research or publication, or censored lectures.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the Government generally 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 granted.

The National Guard and police used force and tear gas to disperse crowds and to maintain order during the high school student protests that took place in early March in Nouakchott and in the interior, sparked by discontent over fuel price hikes that raised the cost of transportation. Police reportedly used violence on the University of Nouakchott campus during the university student strike in May. On May 4, 50 students came to the U.S. Embassy to present their case. One student was injured when police dispersed them.

The two recognized labor confederations and two teachers unions held Labor Day rallies. The unregistered Free Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CLTM) was given permission to march with one of the two confederations but declined and instead became involved in a scuffle with police (see Section 6.a.). The opposition held public marches and demonstrations without incident.

The Constitution provides for freedom of association, however, the Government circumscribes the efforts of some groups by denying them official recognition. The number of political parties, labor unions, and NGO's continued to increase. Some 21 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. New regulations issued by the Government in 1996 to facilitate the establishment of NGO's engaged in economic and social development, environmental protection, and humanitarian assistance were published on February 28. These streamlined procedures facilitated the recognition of several existing NGO's and led to the establishment and recognition of a large number of new NGO's. The Government has not yet granted some NGO's official standing but allowed them to operate. Registration of some NGO's is pending the determination of modalities related to the new law. Among these is the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights; the Government claims that it appeals to specific ethnic groups, namely the Afro-Mauritanian community, and is a potentially divisive force. The Government also has not recognized two antislavery NGO's, the independent SOS-Esclaves and the progovernment National Committee for the Eradication of the Vestiges of Slavery in Mauritania. However, the Government allows these associations to function, issue reports and statements, and, in the case of SOS-Esclaves, assist individuals in their dealings with the Government to resolve problems.

c. Freedom of Religion

The 1991 Constitution established Mauritania as an Islamic republic and decrees that Islam is the religion of its people and the State. All but a small number of citizens are Sunni Muslims and are prohibited by their religion from converting to another religion. The Government prohibits proselytizing by non-Muslims. Christian churches have been established in Nouakchott, Atar, Zouerate, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. The expatriate community of Christians and the few citizens who are considered Christians from birth practice their religion openly and freely in these churches. 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, but the Government views any attempts by Christians to convert Muslims as undermining Mauritanian society. The authorities carried out immediate investigations and provided enhanced protection to a Christian NGO that received two written death threats in July and August but no arrests were made.

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 provides for the freedom to enter and leave. Historically there were few restrictions on travel in Mauritania's nomadic society. With urbanization and automobile travel, the Government set up regular road checkpoints where the Gendarmerie checks papers of travelers. The Government imposed no nighttime curfews.

The Government cooperates with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Government provided first asylum to refugees from many countries. There were no reports of refugees being forced to return to a country where they feared persecution. The UNHCR completed its repatriation program of Malian refugees from Mauritania in early June and closed its last camp for Malian refugees in eastern Mauritania on June 30. The Government is willing to permit the estimated 2,000 Malians, who did not choose earlier repatriation, to stay in Mauritania.

Of the approximately 70,000 Afro-Mauritanians who were expelled by Mauritania or fled to Senegal and Mali during the 1989-91 crisis, and of those born abroad since then, the Government estimates that 30,000 to 35,000 have returned, 7,000 during the year. The UNHCR has documented 24,970 persons who had returned to villages in four provinces along the Senegal River by November 17. The UNHCR lacks access to many returnee sites and keeps no statistics on the number of persons returning to urban areas. Nomads are also difficult to document. Many entire villages as well as almost all Peulh (nomadic herders of the Halpulaar ethnic group) have returned. Based on a 1995 census in Senegal, the UNHCR estimates that 60,000 to 65,000 Mauritanians remain in Senegal, including 15,000 children born there since 1989, and from 10,000 to 15,000 Mauritanian Halpulaars remain in Mali. Of these, an unknown number have permanently integrated into the local populations of their asylum countries. The Government has stated since 1993 that any Mauritanian outside the country may return. However, the Government, the countries of asylum, and the UNHCR have signed no tripartite repatriation agreement. Under the UNHCR-funded, 2-year special plan for rapid insertion (PSIR) begun in mid-1996 to assist returnees, the Mauritanian Red Crescent, the UNHCR, and NGO's have undertaken over 113 small agriculture, water, health, education, and construction projects in 77 villages to assist returnees. Cooperation by local authorities in addressing restitution and citizenship matters varies greatly, depending on individual officials and the returnee's region.

Repatriation efforts have achieved greater results in the Trarza and Brakna regions than in Gorgol and Guidimaka to the east. Many returnees received their original homes, some property, and a portion of their land. Restoration of identity papers in a timely manner has varied, and some of those repatriated who returned in 1995 have not yet received identification cards. In some regions, persons lacking identity cards could not travel freely.

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. Although civilians fill all ministerial-level positions, some members of the former Military Council, in addition to President Taya, remained in positions of power within the executive branch, the National Assembly, the armed forces, and government-owned enterprises. The armed forces continued to provide strong support to the regime. The Government denied elements of the opposition the opportunity to receive full access to government media and to compete on an equal footing.

The country's first multiparty legislative elections were held in October 1996. Only 1 opposition and 6 independent candidates were elected to the 79-member National Assembly. The outcome of the elections was marred by fraud on all sides and pervasive government intervention to support candidates from the ruling PRDS party. After the Government announced that presidential elections would take place on December 12, the anniversary of the 1984 coup, a coalition of five opposition parties announced on June 26 that it intended to boycott the election unless certain demands were met. These requirements included enhanced media access, an opposition role in election preparation, creation of an independent electoral commission, enlarging the commission charged with electoral list revision, and provision of official copies of the voting report from each polling station to representatives of each candidate. The Government granted the opposition full access to its media but did not meet the other demands. Five individuals, including a 1992 presidential and an Afro-Mauritanian for the first time, ran for president. The Government sent teams to cover each candidate's campaign, and all received equal treatment in the official electronic and print media as well as the usual treatment in the independent press. President Taya won an overwhelming victory, although his opponents fared much better in the cities than in the rural areas. The official turnout of 75 percent and winning percentage of 90 percent were inflated, since many individuals voted more than once.

Women have the right to vote, and formed the majority of voters in the presidential election. Many are active in election campaigns. There are increasing numbers of women in senior government positions, including one cabinet member, two secretaries-general, two senior presidential advisors (including a Halpulaar), and four senior advisors to ministers. Women are well represented in the Secretariat of Women's Affairs, including a number of Halpulaar women. There are three female members of the National Assembly (including one Haratine and one Soninke from the Forgeron caste), but no female senators. Halpulaars, Soninkes, and Wolofs are underrepresented in senior government positions. Of the Government's 19 ministerial posts,

2 incumbents are Haratine, 2 Halpulaar, and 1 Soninke; the remainder are of either White Moor or of mixed White Moor/Haratine ethnicity (see Section 5). The full 23-member Cabinet, including secretaries of state has 2 Haratines, 2 Halpulaars, and 1 Soninke. The Afro-Mauritanian and Haratine population provides 13 National Assembly deputies and 10 senators.

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

There are an increasing number of human rights organizations; they operate without government restriction. The oldest is the Mauritanian League for Human Rights, an independent but government-recognized body. In February it published a report that scrutinized the legacy of slavery and listed legislation pertaining to it. A second and still 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.

Other organizations, including 10 unregistered associations, also 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 in 1994. 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 (see Section 6.c.). SOS-Esclaves was particularly active in drawing public attention to this issue, issuing in March a report detailing its activities and a petition appealing to national and international audiences to support measures to eradicate slavery. SOS-Esclaves also intervened effectively with government authorities to push resolution of some of the cases, in particular child custody cases, brought to the organization by former slaves.

The Committee of Solidarity with the Victims of Repression in Mauritania is concerned with the plight of the 1989 expellees. The Consultative Group for the Return of the Refugees was founded to promote the return of the remaining Mauritanian refugees in Senegal. The Collective of Workers Victims of the 1989 Events seeks redress for government employees who lost their jobs in the events of 1989. The Committee of the Widows and the Collective of Survivors focus on the sufferings of the victims of the

1990-91 military purge and their families. The Collective of Survivors of Political Detention and Torture (CRADPOCIT) was established in 1996 to seek redress for abuses committed during the 1986-87 period. These, and other groups of individuals with common concerns, function openly and actively, but their efforts are somewhat circumscribed because they are not officially recognized (see Section 2.b.). Ten organizations created an umbrella organization, the Reseau Nationale des Droits de L'Homme in April to coordinate on human rights issues. Both registered and unregistered NGO's attended sessions of the African Commission of Human and People's Rights, which met in Nouakchott in June, but initially the Government denied access to unregistered groups.

Representatives from a variety of European, African, American, and Arab human rights organizations visited Mauritania. Antislavery International, the African American Institute, the American Jewish Committee , the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) were among these visitors. In March Africare signed an agreement with the Government to establish an office in Nouakchott. These groups were allowed free access, and there were no reports of harassment or reprisal against Mauritanian interlocutors during or following the visits.

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. Societal discrimination against women, strongly rooted in traditional society, is endemic, although the situation is improving.

Women

Human rights monitors and female lawyers report that physical mistreatment of women by their husbands is rare. The police and judiciary occasionally intervene in domestic abuse cases, but women in traditional society rarely seek legal redress, relying instead upon family and ethnic group members to resolve domestic disputes. The incidence of reported rape is low. It occurs, but newspaper accounts of attacks are rare.

Women have legal rights to property and child custody, and, among the more modern and urbanized population, these rights are recognized. By local tradition, a woman's first marriage, but not subsequent marriages, requires parental consent. In accordance with Shari'a, marriage and divorce do not require the woman's consent, polygyny is allowed, and a woman does not have the right to refuse her husband's wish to marry additional wives. In practice polygyny is very rare among Moors but common among Afro-Mauritanians. Arranged marriages are also increasingly rare, particularly among the Moor population. Women frequently initiate the termination of a marriage, which most often is done by husband or wife by repudiation rather than divorce. It is also common in Moor society for a woman to obtain, at the time of marriage, a contractual agreement that stipulates that her husband must agree to end their marriage if he chooses an additional wife. The rate of divorce among Moors is estimated to be 37 percent and the remarriage rate after divorce 72.5 percent.

Women still face some legal discrimination. For example, the testimony of two women is necessary to equal that of one man, and the value placed on women's lives in court-awarded indemnities is only half the amount awarded for a man's death (see Section l.e.). Women do not face legal discrimination, however, in other areas not specifically addressed by Shari'a. The Secretariat for Women's Affairs works with many NGO's and cooperatives to improve the status of women. A booklet published late in 1996 advises women of their rights.

There are no legal restrictions on the education of girls and women. Girls comprised 45 percent of all school enrollments in 1996-1997. Some 75 percent of school age girls attended elementary school in 1996, up from 44.8 percent in 1990 (compared with 85.9 percent for boys, up from 58.3 percent). At the secondary level, female students constituted 36 percent of those enrolled. Despite the increases, enrollment in eastern Mauritania, the Brakna, and along the Senegal River remained at a lower level. The Government introduced a special program in 1995-96 to boost female enrollment at the elementary level. Women made up 14.9 percent of the university's 1996-97 enrollment, compared with 9 percent in 1990. Women also constituted 26.5 percent of students enrolled in technical schools, compared with 2 percent in 1990.

The Government seeks to open new employment opportunities for women in areas that 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. However, almost all children, regardless of sex or ethnic group, attend Koranic school from the ages of 5 to 7 and gain at least rudimentary skills in reading and writing Arabic in addition to memorizing Koranic verses.

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 between the ages of 8 and 10 years who are sent to work as camel jockeys or herders in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar. In October the Government discovered that 11 children between the ages of 3 and 5 years had boarded a plane to Bamako for this purpose and alerted the Government of Mali. The children were returned from Bamako. The parents, who had voluntarily sent the children, were queried but no arrests were made (see Section 6.d.).

Traditional forms of mistreatment of females 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 (FGM), which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health. FGM is performed most often on young girls, often on the seventh day after birth and almost always before the age of 6 months, and it is practiced among all ethnic groups except the Wolof. A March 1996 report by the United Nations Population Fund cited Mauritania as a country in which 25 percent of the women undergo FGM, which was confirmed by a study in September by Jeune Afrique Economique. Among Halpulaar women, over 95 percent undergo FGM. The practice prevails among Soninke women as well. A broad foreign-funded study is currently underway to obtain more precise details. Local experts agree that the least severe form of excision is practiced, and not infibulation, the most severe form of FGM. The practice of FGM has decreased in the modern urban sector.

It is the clear public policy of the Government, through the Secretariat of Women's Affairs, that FGM should be stopped, and the Government bars hospitals from performing it. However, the Government does not attempt to interfere with the practice. The Secretariat of Women's Affairs established a committee in June to combat gavage and FGM. Public health workers and NGO's educate women to the dangers of FGM and to the fact that FGM is not a requirement of Islam. A 1996 officially produced Guide to the Rights of Women in Mauritania (with religious endorsement) stresses that Islam does not require FGM and that if medical experts warn against it for medical reasons, it should not be done.

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 minorities and low-caste individuals among all ethnic groups confront societal discrimination. Ethnic and cultural tension and discrimination arise from the geographic and cultural line between traditionally nomadic Arabic-speaking (Hassaniya) Moor herders and Afro-Mauritanian (Peuhl) herders of the Halpulaar group, and sedentary cultivators of the Halpulaar (Toucouleur), Soninke, and Wolof ethnic groups in the south. Although culturally homogeneous, the Moors are divided among numerous ethno-linguistic clan 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 Afro-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 Afro-Mauritanians in 1989-90 and the purge of Afro-Mauritanians from the military in 1991. Few regained their positions.

The Constitution designates Arabic along with Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof as Mauritania's national languages. Successive governments--both civil and military--have pursued various policies of Arabization in the schools and in the workplace. Non-Arabic-speaking ethnic groups have protested this policy, as have Arabic-speaking groups that want their children to obtain a bilingual Arabic-French education. The Government provides bilingual Arabic-French programs where the community demand is sufficient. Elementary school classes are also available in the other national languages in several localities.

Some hostility and bitterness from the explosive ethnic violence of the 1989-91 events persist between ethnic groups, although political coalitions among the groups are increasingly important.

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 six new labor confederations have been recognized and four unofficial or unrecognized unions formed. The UTM, which many workers still view as closely allied with the Government and the Parti Republicain Democratique et Sociale (PRDS), has lost ground to these organizations. The General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CGTM), recognized in 1994 and with 23 member unions, is not affiliated with any political party, although most of its members favor the opposition; it continued to gain considerably in strength during the year, in part because of the UTM's internal discord. The Government, which previously subsidized only the UTM, now provides funds also to the CGTM, proportional to its membership. Both confederations supplied representatives to the country's four labor tribunals, and the CGTM was included in most government deliberative or consultative bodies in which the UTM alone has participated in the past. A third labor confederation, the Free Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CLTM), which was formed in 1995 and leans politically toward the opposition party, Action pour le Changement, has not been recognized by the Government but is nevertheless allowed to function. The CLTM complained in May of discrimination in the workplace and by the Government in trade union activity. Several independent trade unions, in particular three for teachers at the elementary, secondary, and university levels, were also active. Seminars to educate the tripartite partners on responsible trade unionism and democratic labor relations were held under foreign embassy and other sponsorship.

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. Most strikes were settled quickly due to limited worker and union resources. Authorities arrested secondary teachers who threatened a strike in April and later cut their salaries. 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.

International trade union activity increased. The Government included both CGTM and UTM representatives in its delegation to the ILO in June, and the ILO conducted an extensive series of training workshops in which both confederations participated as they did in 1996. The CGTM and UTM have applied for membership in the ICFTU, but at year's end the applications are still pending. The UTM participated in regional labor organizations, and the CGTM has an application pending to join the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU).

The Government petitioned the United States for reconsideration of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade privileges in June. 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. General or sectoral agreements on wages, working conditions, and social and medical benefits are negotiated in tripartite discussions and formalized by government decree. Wages and other benefits can also be negotiated bilaterally between employer and union and the results of such negotiations are filed with the Directorate of Labor.

The Secondary School Teachers Union (SIPES) threatened to strike in April to protest the Government's unwillingness to grant wage concessions and implement Islamist dress and other practices in the schools. The Government threatened to dismiss teachers who struck, briefly occupied SIPES headquarters, and detained under house arrest some 15 SIPES leaders. The Government linked SIPES to incitement of student demonstrations in March over increased transportation costs arising from fuel price rises. Some members of SIPES struck on May 7 for 2 hours without incident. All SIPES detainees had been released by July. When the National Order of Lawyers threatened to strike in July, concessions were made and the strike was averted.

Laws provide workers with protection against antiunion discrimination and employees or employers may bring labor disputes to three-person labor tribunals administered jointly by the Ministries of Justice and Labor with the participation of union and employer representatives.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Government prohibits forced and bonded labor, including by children, but does not enforce this prohibition effectively in specific cases (also see Section 5).

Mauritanians continue to suffer the effects of generations of the practice of slavery and of slave caste distinctions in both Moor and Afro-Mauritanian communities. Slavery was officially abolished three times in Mauritania, most recently by the post-independence government in 1980.

A system of officially sanctioned slavery in which government and society join to force individuals to serve masters does not exist; however, slavery in the form of unofficial voluntary or forced and involuntary servitude persists. Many persons continue to live in conditions of unofficial paid or unpaid servitude and many persons still consider themselves to be slaves.

NGO positions on the existence of slavery are not uniform. For example, SOS-Esclaves in an April report characterizes slavery as a persistent social reality, whose occurrence among disadvantaged classes is far from negligible. The OAU's African Commission on Human and People's Rights report issued in April disputed the conclusions of SOS-Esclaves. While not dismissing the possibility of isolated cases of slavery in the remote countryside, the Commission concluded that the persistence of vestiges of slavery was the more convincing explanation of social relations. Anti-Slavery International believes that there is insufficient evidence one way or the other to conclude whether or not slavery exists, and that an in depth, long term study was required to determine whether the practice continues.

Adult males cannot be obliged by law to remain with their masters nor can they be returned if they leave. Adult females with children, however, may have greater difficulties and may be compelled by pressures other than physical force to remain in a condition of servitude. For example, in some cases, former masters refuse to allow children to accompany their mothers; in other cases, the greater economic responsibility of a family may be the principal impediment to seeking a new life. Children's legal status is more tenuous than that of adults.

There were no reported cases of sales or transfers of individuals--often children--from one employer or master to another. There were occasional confirmed cases of transfers in 1996, but reports of sales are rare, cannot be confirmed, and are confined to past years. In several highly publicized cases, children were returned from former masters claiming to be their fathers to their mothers. The longstanding case of Aichana Mint Abeid Boilil came to a close in January when her last child was returned to her. In an inheritance case in Boutilimit, a young woman given to the son of her former master, was returned to her family in Nouakchott.

Many citizens, whether Moor or Afro-Mauritanian, continue to call themselves slave even though they are legally free to live and work where they choose. This is exacerbated by the Government's weak record of enforcing the ban on slavery. Many individuals still live with masters or former masters. Poverty, persistent drought, and a weak economy provide few economic alternatives for many and leave some former slaves open to possible exploitation by former masters. Significant numbers, especially in the cities, work for former masters for a pittance or in exchange for room and board, clothing, and medical benefits. Some also receive gifts on important family occasions such as births, marriages, and deaths. Invisible but crippling psychological bonds make it difficult for many individuals, who have generations of forebearers who were slaves, to think of themselves as free from former masters. Because of religious instruction in the past, some individuals continue to link themselves to former masters and fear religious sanction if that bond is broken by anyone else.

Slave as a caste designation is common to all ethnic groups--Sub-Saharan Afro-Mauritanian groups as well as Moor. The legacy of these caste distinctions continues to affect the status and opportunities available to various groups of Mauritanians. In some groups, for example, individuals of a higher caste who seek to marry someone of a lower caste may be barred by the community, and in Soninke communities members of the slave caste cannot be buried in the same cemetery as other castes.

President Taya used his January 9 speech on the eve of Ramadan to publicly address the issue of slavery and its legacy in Mauritania for the first time. The speech aroused widespread public debate over the slavery question in newspapers and among NGO's. Over 200 articles on the subject appeared. Only one newspaper, Al-Akhbar on January 28, was censored for an article related to the debate.

The Government focuses on education, literacy, and agrarian reform as the main means to eradicate the vestiges of slavery. Its record in cases in which an individual's civil rights are affected because of status as a former slave, however, is weak. When complaints were filed with the Government to remedy cases involving detention of individuals against their will, the Government intervened in accordance with the law, although sometimes only after considerable prodding and passage of time. A mother appealed a February 1996 ruling by a magistrate in Brakna giving custody of her two children to a former master who claimed to be their father. He was later determined actually to be their father and received custody. Determination of such cases is problematic in a country where there is polygyny, secret marriages, no written records, and divorce by repudiation. The courts are prepared to pursue the concept of genetic testing to determine paternity, but no such cases have yet been brought.

Three NGO's, SOS-Esclaves, the National Committee for the Struggle Against the Vestiges of Slavery in Mauritania, and the Initiative for the Support of the Activities of the President, had as their focus issues related to the history of slavery in Mauritania. Of these, SOS-Esclaves was particularly active in bringing to public attention cases in which it found the rights of former slaves to have been abridged, and in assisting former slaves in their difficulties with former masters. Other human rights and civic action NGO's also follow this issue closely. The independent press, which includes journals that are published by Haratines and Afro-Mauritanians who emphasize issues of importance to these ethnic groups, is also quick to report any incident that comes to its attention in which the rights of former slaves have not been respected.

Inheritance disputes between Haratines and the descendants of their former masters arose several times and were adjudicated in court. Most such disputes are decided in accordance with the law, and rule that the descendants of the former slaves should inherit their property. There has been no further action on the 1994 land case that was still under review in 1996.

In a 1995 case, 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 a former slave. On December 28, 1996, the Supreme Council of the Magistrature removed the magistrate in Kankossa from the bench because he refused to accept the provisions of the 1980 law abolishing slavery. The Government censured for a human rights-related cause at least one of the other three judges removed at the same time. The removal of these magistrates emphasize to other judges that the provisions of the 1980 law apply.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The Labor Code states explicitly that children must not be employed before the age of 14 unless the Minister of Labor grants an exception due to local circumstances. The Government prohibits forced and bonded labor by children but does not enforce this prohibition effectively in certain specific cases (see Sections 5 and 6.c.). The Government has a functional labor inspectorate empowered to refer cases directly to the appropriate judicial authorities. The Government lacks sufficient resources to enforce existing child labor laws (see Section 5).

Education is not compulsory, and for financial and other reasons, 15 percent of school-age children do not regularly attend government schools. Labor law specifies that no child under the age of 13 years may be employed in the agricultural sector without the permission of the Minister of Labor, nor under the age of 14 years in the nonagricultural sector. The law provides that employed children between the ages of 14 and 16 should receive 70 percent of the minimum wage, and those between the ages of 17 and 18 should receive 90 percent of the minimum wage.

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. There is no child labor in the modern industrial sector.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage for adults is approximately $53.55 (8,300 ouguiya) per month) and has not been raised since 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. Domestic workers and certain other categories work 56 hours. 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.

Search Refworld

Countries