Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Mauritania

Political context

The election of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi on April 19, 2007, following the first election recognised as democratic since the independence of Mauritania in 1960, has resulted in many expectations from both the population and the international community engaged in a program of support for good governance and civil society, which was heavily repressed under the former regime.

The new President has pledged to eliminate the "humanitarian backlog", a consequence of racial and ethnic crises that divided Mauritanian society in the 1980s and 1990s. In this regard, the adoption of new laws and national consultations are currently under way on the following issues: the right of return for black Mauritanians who were deported to Senegal and Mali in April 1989; the right to truth and justice for families of victims of summary executions and acts of torture committed under the "de-negrification" carried out within the administration and the army; the prohibition and criminalisation of slavery and all forms of exploitation. The participation of civil society in these debates is essential to demonstrate real political will and consolidate democracy.

Participants in the national days of consultations and mobilisation for the return of deportees and the settlement of the humanitarian backlog, which were held on November 20, 21 and 22, 2007 under the leadership of the Ministry of the Interior, recommended the creation of structure which could take the form of a truth and reconciliation commission to defend the rights of victims. In support of the fight against impunity – which the amnesty law weakened – this structure would contribute to the consolidation of the rule of law and help prevent abuses such as torture under cover of counter-terrorism.1

In connection with the adoption of the law criminalising slavery, adopted on August 8, 2007 by Parliament,2 anti-slavery organisations and other associations have also asked the Government to implement measures and set up accompanying structures for the payment of reparations and for the rehabilitation of victims. In mid-October, for the first time in the country's history, a master was imprisoned for the crime of slavery on two young children in the Assaba region, a precedent which could pave the way for other cases. However, a significant drawback was raised by associations: under this law, the burden of proof lies with organisations that work with victims, and these organisations could be prosecuted for having filed slanderous complaints. The possibility of claiming damages is thus severely limited for the victims and is not yet open to organisations that support these victims.

The questioning of an initiative to ease the legal framework for NGOs

For defenders, the biggest challenge remains the definition of a legal framework governing their activities. Because this framework no longer corresponds to democratic developments, it has become urgent to adapt it. In early 2007, a consensus text was endorsed by civil society organisations.3 The text aimed to abolish the system of prior authorisation, which had allowed discretionary interference by the authorities in the activities of associations, thus putting them into legal insecurity, and provided instead for the establishment of a declaratory system based on objective criteria and for the limitation of the role of the competent authority to the verification of the compliance of registration applications with the law. It also provided for control by a judge at every stage of the existence of an NGO (constitution, functioning, dissolution), and allowed NGOs to act as civil parties in areas where they have expertise, as in the case of the law criminalising slavery.

Since then, the Government, through the Ministry Responsible for Relations with Parliament and Civil Society, has taken a step backwards. A new text was presented at a workshop on the legal framework and ethics of civil society, held on October 26 and 27 by the Ministry, with support from UNDP. The text tends towards the monitoring of the organisations. In one statement, 22 workshop participants recalled the participatory approach conducted in 2006 and the consensus text approved. They called for the respect of principles already adopted, as well as for a consultation with the Government regarding the preliminary bill, prior to its adoption and transmission to Parliament. The main points raised concerned the return to a system of prior authorisation, the centralisation of the registration of associations through a single window system, the requirements and conditions for reporting, the possibility of dissolving an organisation through administrative action (and no longer only judicial), and the impossibility of belonging to different networks. These administrative obstacles to the functioning of associations would tend to make them completely dependent on the whim of the Government, without acknowledging their role. The obligation to make the participation in this dialogue dependent on an inscription at the headquarters of the Support Fund to the Professionalisation of National Non-Governmental Organisations (Fonds d'appui à la professionnalisation des organisations non gouvernementales nationales – FAPONG) was also seen as a form of intrusion into the internal management of associations and another example of the liberty-killing nature of this text.

The bill, which was expected to be submitted to the parliamentary session at the end of the year, was still in the drawers of the Ministry of Relations with Parliament and Civil Society at the end of 2007.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 In the "Case of the Islamists", several of the 25 suspected terrorists arrested in 2005, 2006, and 2007 were tortured by law enforcement agents. On June 5, 2007, the Criminal Court of the Regional Court in Nouakchott acquitted 24 of the 25 accused, rejecting any confession obtained under torture.

2 Those who violate this law now face a sentence of five to ten years' imprisonment, plus a fine of between 500,000 and one million Ouguiyas (1,500 to 3,000 Euros).

3 As part of the European programme to support civil society, a national validation workshop of the participatory study on the legal framework governing civil society organisations and mechanisms for dialogue between the State and civil society in Mauritania was held in Nouakchott on January 17 and 18, 2007.


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