Events of 1992

Human Rights Developments

Despite cosmetic democratization and a lessening of government-instigated violence in 1992, Mauritania retains all the apparatus of a repressive state with a disregard for basic human rights. In January, Mauritania held its first multiparty elections, which resulted in the re-election of President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, but the elections were marred by serious irregularities and fraud. The new government, which is virtually identical to its predecessor, continues to be responsible for human rights abuses, particularly in the areas inhabited by the black populations along the Senegal River Valley.

The dramatic abuses associated with the mass deportations of 1989, during which tens of thousands of blacks were summarily expelled, and the massacre of November 1990-January 1991, in which at least 500 black political prisoners were executed or tortured to death, have been replaced by a more chronic and insidious pattern of violations, principally against the black population of southern Mauritania. For the ruling beydanes (white Moors of Arab-Berber descent), the result is the same: many blacks are forced to flee the country, and much farmland can be confiscated for future ownership by Moors. For the black population, subjugation to military rule and associated human rights abuses have often proven intolerable.

Throughout 1992, there were reliable indications that violent incidents, including killings, arbitrary detentions and torture,continued along the Senegal River Valley. Precise details are very hard to obtain because access to the area remains closed for independent observers. An unofficial night curfew and an undeclared state of emergency remain in place. Africa Watch learned of one incident on the night of February 21-22 in which security forces killed one man near Boghe, and another on August 22, in which they arrested a number of villagers in Sory Male, one of whom later died under torture. At least two mass graves dating from the 1990 killings were discovered in the summer of 1992.

The central political event of 1992 was the presidential election in January. The opposition united to support Ahmed Ould Daddah, the candidate of the Union of Democratic Forces (UFD) (later renamed UFD-New Era). Ould Daddah, an economist and half brother of the country's first president, Moctar Ould Daddah, attracted the support of most of the black voters, who saw him as the only alternative to President Taya. Although the opposition was not prevented from campaigning, the ruling party was able to use many of the state's resources to help its campaign, including the state bureaucracy and the national airline, Air Mauritanie.

Electoral malpractice began with voter registration. A variety of tactics was used to prevent many blacks and supporters of the opposition from registering. The UFD estimates that some 25,000 people were unable to register in Nouakchott, the capital, alone. In some districts, the prefect simply refused to register blacks. In others, special forces of the army were deployed around registration centers, and sometimes used in violence to disperse those who had gathered to register. Blacks were often prevented from registering because they had no identity cards, since the authorities effectively stopped issuing these cards to blacks in the late 1980s. Another method was to ask questions in Arabic, knowing that many blacks would not be able to speak or understand the language, since they tend to speak French and their native languages – Pulaar, Wolof or Soninke.

Even managing to register to vote did not guarantee receiving permission to vote. Many blacks were denied voting cards on such pretexts as that the spelling of their names on the electoral list differed from the spelling on their registration or identity card; the number on the electoral list did not match the registration card; or the registration number had already been used by someone else. In some instances, the authorities simply did not bring the list of registered voters, or claimed to have lost the registration cards.

Both to register and to vote, blacks waited on long lines, often from early morning to late at night, and sometimes on successive days. Given the conditions surrounding the elections, the victory for the ruling party was not surprising.

After the January 24 elections, a curfew was announced and a crackdown on opposition activists was launched, leading to the arrest of opposition supporters in various parts of the country, including Nouadhibou, Nouakchott, Rosso and Kaedi. In addition, government forces violently attacked opposition activists in Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, including members of the UFD who weredemonstrating in Nouadhibou on January 26. As a result, Ousmane Traore, Samba Diallo and possibly as many as three other UFD supporters were killed. Scores of UFD supporters in Nouadhibou were rounded up and 27 of them were imprisoned on charges of inciting violence. They were released in early February and all charges were dropped. On January 25, the security forces used tear gas to attack the UFD headquarters in Nouakchott, injuring 20.

In March, legislative elections were held, but the opposition boycotted, due both to the conduct of the presidential elections, and to the government's refusal to meet the opposition's conditions, such as postponing the elections to permit the political parties to prepare adequately, revising the electoral lists, creating a commission to supervise the elections, and forming an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the post-election killings in Nouadhibou. The president and his party thus retained control of the country.

On the diplomatic front, the most important development took place in April, when Senegal and Mauritania re-established diplomatic relations, which had been broken after the massive deportations of blacks from Mauritania to Senegal beginning in April 1989. Unfortunately, many of the issues relating to the deportations remained unresolved, especially the question of the return of those expelled and those who fled for their own safety. These refugees have made it clear that they cannot return to Mauritania until their security is assured, their citizenship is restored, and their goods, homes and land are returned.

Currently, there are more than 50,000 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal and more than 10,000 in Mali. That the Mauritanian government continues to paper over the past and trivialize the steps that must be taken to ensure their safe return was evident in a radio interview given by Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar on May 21:

Now I am anxious to affirm here that Mauritania has never expelled any of its citizens (emphasis added). The events of April 1989 constituted a real tragedy for both our peoples.... [T]his situation has now been put behind us. We believe that all Mauritanian citizens who are in Senegal or elsewhere are free to return to their country. This has always been the case.

Until the Mauritanian government acknowledges the expulsions of 1989 and their attendant abuses, it gives exiles little confidence in their security if they return, and no reason to expect compensation for, or restoration of, their lost homes, land and belongings.

Nor has the government shown any inclination to investigate, prosecute or punish those responsible for such gross abuses as the deportations and the massacre of prisoners, despite ample evidence pointing to the direct involvement of many high-ranking government officials. To the contrary, the government has not acknowledged even that the killings occurred, let alone responsibility for them.It also has consistently refused to permit an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the deaths, allowing only a military commission whose findings were never publicized.

Moreover, in December 1991, the government promoted two colonels, both members of the Military Committee for National Salvation, who were directly implicated in orchestrating the prison massacre. The two men, Colonels Sid'Ahmed Ould Boilil and Cheikh Ould Mohamed Saleh, were, respectively, the commanders of the military regions of Nouadhibou and Aleg, where most of the killing and torture took place. Both men had been put on a kind of six-month probation as a result of the internal military investigation after the massacre. By then promoting them, the Mauritanian government sent a clear message that military commanders would not suffer for participating in egregious human rights abuses.

In addition, the families of the victims reportedly have never received official notification of the prisoners' deaths, nor any cooperation from Mauritanian authorities in determining the fate of their loved ones. Efforts in 1992 by a group of wives, mothers and sisters of those killed to obtain government acknowledgement of the executions have been unfruitful.

The one positive note is that the independent press became a more vibrant force in 1992, despite the restrictive new press law issued in July 1991. Independent journalists investigated and wrote about government abuses, both past and present. In July, however, individuals closely associated with the government sued two of the most outspoken journals, Al Bayane and L'Eveil Hebdo. The case against Al Bayane was brought by the administrator of a private school in Nouakchott because of an article about corruption in the school. The case against L'Eveil Hebdo was brought by a relative of the President, Hadramy Ould Taya, concerning an article on the post-election violence in Nouadhibou which reported that one of the demonstrators was killed by a bullet that may have come from his home. Both plaintiffs won their cases, and although the damages awarded were not substantial, the cases may have a chilling effect on the independent press.

The Right to Monitor

The Mauritanian League for Human Rights is the only human rights organization in the country, and it has been known for its pro-government positions. During 1992, however, the League was more vocal in calling on the government to respect human rights.

On March 5, a coalition of opposition groups organized a day of events to honor human rights, including a march and a conference in Nouakchott. Reports indicate that the march was the largest ever seen in the capital, with estimates of the number of demonstrators as high as 200,000. Some participants carried pictures of those killed in the 1990-1991 massacre; others held signs denouncing torture, slavery and dictatorship. Another symposium on human rights that the UFD-New Era tried to hold in Nouadhibou in July was reportedly blocked by the authorities.

In late 1991, an official government delegation from Nouakchott visited the United States and promised Africa Watch thatit could send a fact-finding mission to Mauritania, which Africa Watch had been attempting to do for more than two years. Unfortunately, the promised visas never materialized.

U.S. Policy

With few interests in Mauritania, especially after it supported Iraq in the Gulf War, the U.S. government has criticized Mauritania on human rights grounds. In 1991, the United States ended all bilateral assistance. In November 1991, the Bush administration took steps against Mauritania at the World Bank. Citing human rights violations, the administration instructed the U.S. Executive Director at the World Bank to abstain on World Bank loans to Mauritania, except those involving basic human needs.

In February 1992, a high-ranking State Department official visited Nouakchott and delivered a strong, private message to President Taya concerning ongoing human rights violations against the black population. State Department sources indicated that the U.S. official made it clear that improvement in the human rights performance of the Mauritanian government was the key to any amelioration of U.S.-Mauritanian relations.

The U.S. in 1992 did not make any public statements about human rights violations in Mauritania, even after the elections. However, State Department sources indicate that U.S. Ambassador William Twaddell was authorized to make private demarches about human rights concerns.

In response to a petition filed in May 1991 by Africa Watch documenting systematic labor rights violations in Mauritania, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills announced in June 1992 that she would extend her review of worker rights in Mauritania for another year, rather than immediately cut off trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences as required by U.S. law.

The Work of Africa Watch

Africa Watch continued to monitor the situation in Mauritania, issuing protests about abuses and serving as a source of information for the press and others interested in Mauritania. A major report on human rights violations in Mauritania will be released in 1993.

This 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.