U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Mauritania

  President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya has ruled Mauritania since 1984, first as head of a military junta and since 1992 as head of an elected civilian Government. The January 1992 presidential elections, however, were widely regarded by observers as fraudulent. In April 1992, there were elections – boycotted by most opposition parties – for a new civilian Parliament to replace the Military Committee which had previously functioned as the country's legislative body. The 1991 Constitution delegates most powers to the executive; the Parliament, composed of a Senate and a National Assembly, posed no challenge to the executive's dominance. The opposition boycott also gave the President's party, the Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS), effective control over Parliament. The President and the Government have strong military support. Mauritanian security forces number between 19,000 and 20,000 and include the regular armed forces, the National Guard, the Gendarmerie (a specialized corps of paramilitary police), and the police. The Gendarmerie is directed by the Ministry of Defense, while the National Guard and police come under the Ministry of Interior. The security forces continued to engage in human rights violations, but the incidence and severity of violations continued to drop from the massive scale of abuses during 1989-91. The security forces, especially the military, are dominated by the Arabic-speaking (Hassaniya) Maurs. Most of Mauritania's 2.1 million inhabitants, either nomadic herders, settled farmers, or small merchants and traders, live within a market-oriented subsistence economy. Mauritania is burdened with numerous long-term economic and social problems: drought, desertification, insect infestation, extensive unemployment, one of the highest per capita foreign debts in Africa, minimal infrastructure, inadequate health and education systems, and rapid urbanization. Low rainfall levels over the past years have forced large numbers of nomads to settle, with a consequent weakening of traditional nomadic culture, a severe strain on government resources, and increased ethnic tensions with the sedentary African, non-Hassaniya-speaking farmers in the south (see Section 5). While the observance of human rights improved, there was only limited progress in resolving major human rights violations of previous years. The political system still fell far short of a genuine democracy; despite numerous parties, the regime's legitimacy remained in question with a large part of the electorate – namely, many African non-Hassaniya-speaking citizens – excluded from effective political representation. Some 56,000 African-Mauritanians, among the approximately 60,000 expelled in the 1989-90 period, remained in refugee settlements in Senegal. Most were waiting to be repatriated and to be reimbursed for their lost property and belongings. Ethnic tensions remained high because of the Government's failure to bring to account those responsible for the bloody purge conducted by the military among its own ranks from September 1990 through March 1991, in which approximately 500 persons – almost entirely from Mauritania's black African ethnic groups (largely Halpulaar and Soninke) – are believed to have died, and many hundreds more were tortured and maimed. In June the PRDS-dominated Parliament aggravated the situation by passing an amnesty bill to preclude legal pursuit of those involved in this purge. The Government undertook efforts to restructure the judiciary, including abolishing the Special Security Court, but in practice, the right of fair trial remained restricted, the police continued to mistreat suspects, and slavery remained a problem. Violence against women became an issue for open discussion.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

While it was not clear whether security forces were acting under orders or whether individuals were acting as armed vigilantes, there were a number of unexplained and uninvestigated deaths in the border region of Guidimaka. In that area, there is a high incidence of cattle rustling and vigilantism by both civilians and security forces. There are credible reports that black Mauritanians, previously expelled to Senegal and associated with radical, antigovernment groups, killed two Mauritanian military officers, both white Maurs, in August along the Senegal River where the majority of the country's non-Arabic-speaking black population lives. Extrajudicial killings, primarily of African-Mauritanians, from past years remained uninvestigated and unresolved. The principal example of unresolved extrajudicial killing dates from 1990-91 when, while in military custody, approximately 500 largely Halpulaar and Soninke military and civilian personnel died; many of these persons were summarily executed after being tortured. They were part of a large group of as many as 3,000 who were rounded up, detained, and tortured, allegedly for coup-plotting. The results of an internal military investigation into this matter have never been made public, and no one has been charged with or faced trial for the tortures and deaths. In fact, several high-placed military officials who reportedly were involved remain on duty and in some cases were promoted, including Colonel Sid'Ahmed Ould Boilil, Colonel Cheikh Ould Mohamed Salah, Major Mohamed Cheikh Ould El Hadi, and Major Ely Fall. In June Parliament approved a bill granting amnesty to members of the armed forces and police, as well as to private citizens, involved in those killings and other abuses during the 1990-91 period. The bill was a setback for efforts by human rights groups and others to bring to account those responsible or otherwise resolve these abuses. The Government offered compensation to victims of these abuses and to relatives of those who were killed, but very few of the concerned families accepted the compensation in the absence of an overall settlement.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances. In previous years, there were occasional credible reports of black Africans disappearing after being taken into military custody. The Government appears to have made no effort to investigate these past incidents.

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

The law prohibits the use of torture and other forms of cruel or inhuman punishment. However, while there was no repetition of the large-scale mistreatment of 1990-91, there continued to be credible evidence of mistreatment by security forces. In particular, police occasionally beat criminal suspects prior to interrogation. Persons who commit such abuses are only occasionally tried and punished. In one instance, police reportedly apprehended a journalist in Nouakchott for not having his identity papers with him; they stripped and beat him and then released him. There was no report of an investigation or punishment of the police involved. Security forces, claiming retaliation for cross-border raids in the Guidamaka area near the Mali border, reportedly sometimes resort to brutality – usually severe beatings – in questioning people, and on some occasions have themselves stolen goods from the people they were supposed to protect. Prison conditions are harsh and do not meet minimum sanitary or humanitarian standards. In September an independent journal featured an expose on abysmal conditions at the central prison for men in Nouakchott. The article cited, inter alia, inadequate food and medical treatment for inmates. There was also a report of some inmates being forced to wear manacles continually so as to restrict their movement. Another independent newspaper reported the arrest of two minors, aged 10 and 12, who were held in an adult prison where they were beaten before being released. The Government permitted visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to monitor prison conditions. There were a few reports of policemen being brought to justice for the mistreatment of individuals. In one case, four police officers entered a house under the guise of searching for drug traffickers. After raping and robbing a woman, they were apprehended by other police officers; the perpetrators were tried and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The 1991 Constitution provides for due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by an established tribunal. It further states that no one can be arrested, detained, prosecuted, or punished except as provided for under the law. The Government, with the participation of an association of lawyers, revised the Code of Civil and Criminal Procedures in 1993 to bring it into line with the Constitution and to spell out more clearly safeguards to protect the accused. Nonetheless, actual application of these safeguards remained inconsistent and continued to vary widely from case to case. By law, the courts are required to review the legality of a person's detention within 48 hours of arrest. However, the police can extend the period for another 48 hours, and a prosecutor has the authority to detain persons for up to 30 days in cases considered to involve national security. Only after the prosecutor submits the charges is the suspect permitted to contact an attorney. It is, moreover, common practice to detain prisoners incommunicado for prolonged periods without charging them with any crime and without judicial review. Sometimes prisoners who have been charged find themselves released before trial without explanation. Such releases usually can be attributed to the prisoner's familial, tribal, or political connections. There is a provision for granting bail, but it is rarely used. There was a credible report of suspects being held for extended periods without being tried or charged. For example, in Sory Male, a Halpulaar village with a history of abuse and torture by security forces, four persons were arrested in November 1992 for the murder of a Maur storekeeper. At the end of 1993, they remained in pretrial detention. There continued to be occasional reports of arbitrary arrests and intimidation committed by security forces, particularly in communities along the Senegal river.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

While the judiciary is nominally independent, it is controlled and influenced by the executive. The Government appoints judges and subjects the courts to pressure in reaching verdicts. This influence was demonstrated clearly when the Government refused to allow the courts to accept the opposition parties' challenge of the January 1992 presidential elections. Other examples include the court's dismissal, at the Government's direction, of banks' suits to seize collateral on defaulted loans held by influential community members and the rejection of class actions which could embarrass the Government. Furthermore, effective implementation of justice is problematic due in part to poorly educated and trained judges and their susceptibility to tribal or social pressures. To a significant degree, the judicial system continues to be dominated by rulings, conciliations, and settlements conducted by tribal elders based on Shari'a (Islamic law), tribal regulations, and personal connections. The revised formal judicial system (see Section 1.d.) includes a system of lower, middle, and upper level courts, each with specified jurisdiction. The Security Court, a chamber reserved for cases involving the Government, was abolished. Bridging the traditional and modern system of justice are 43 department-level tribunals staffed by Qadis or traditional Islamic magistrates trained primarily in Koranic law. Mauritanians aiming to use the courts to seek redress in matters such as marriage, inheritance, succession, noncommercial suits, and land issues in rural areas must address themselves to one of these tribunals, which operate on the basis of both Shari'a and legal codes. The use by Islamic judges of extreme physical punishment, such as amputation, is no longer practiced in Mauritania. The Government is continuing to eliminate a number of unqualified Shari'a judges, and it held two training seminars for judges and members of the security forces to increase their awareness of the basic rights of detainees. The 10 regional courts or tribunals of first instance handle litigation between companies, civil suits against the Government, traffic accidents and infractions, embezzlement of public funds, banking or insurance matters, money changing violations, and land issues in urban areas. Challenges to decisions at the department and regional levels are handled by one of three regional Courts of Appeals. A Supreme Court, nominally independent, is headed by a magistrate named 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. Established by the 1991 Constitution, it has three members named by the President, two by the National Assembly President, and one by the Senate President. Submission of laws for review by the Council can be done only by the President, the Senate or National Assembly Presidents, or by one-third of the members of either house. Council findings may not be appealed. At the end of 1993, two laws submitted for review had been declared not in conformity with the Constitution on technical grounds. Both were being reformulated to bring them into compliance. In theory, all defendants, regardless of the court or their ability to pay, have the legal right to be present with legal counsel during the proceedings. The law also states that defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and appeal their sentences. However, in practice these rights are not regularly applied. The Government's claim that there were no political detainees or prisoners appeared accurate at year's end.

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

By law, judicial warrants are required to perform home searches, but this requirement is often ignored. There were fewer reports of government surveillance of suspected dissidents than in the past. The extent to which the Government uses informants is unknown.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The 1991 Constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but there are important restrictions including prepublication press censorship. With regard to freedom of speech, opposition political leaders spoke openly at large rallies in preparation for the municipal elections expected to take place in early 1994. The Government controls the electronic media (radio and television) and the country's two daily newspapers, Horizon and Chaab. Radio is the most important medium by far in reaching the public, and all the official media strongly support government policies. All newspapers and political parties must register with the Ministry of Information, and newspapers must submit their copy to the Ministry prior to publication. There were no reports of the Ministry excising material from journals or otherwise censoring their articles, and in contrast to 1992 there were no cases of the authorities seizing issues of newspapers. Independent, privately owned journals, established following the press law of 1991, numbered approximately 60 – most appearing weekly in the capital and other large towns. For the most part, these weeklies reach a limited audience, not only due to financial constraints but also because of the high rate of illiteracy. They were boldly critical of the Government, particularly on its human rights record, and the President himself was often criticized by name. Some of them undertook investigations of human rights violations, unresolved crimes, and government corruption. Antigovernment tracts, newsletters, and petitions circulated widely in Nouakchott and other major cities. The one university is government operated, but since 1991 limits on academic freedom have eased. There were no cases of professors being prevented from pursuing their research and publication interests or of having their lectures censored.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association. The law governing political parties requires that all groups must register with the Minister of Interior and obtain permission for large meetings or assemblies. There were reports of some permits being denied or conditions placed on some marches or rallies to limit their effectiveness. Over 16 political parties and a wide array of nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), many of them highly critical of the Government, met openly, issued public statements, and chose their own leadership. Legally required to register with the Government in order to operate, a large number of newly formed NGO's, such as the Association of Human Rights, a women's group on the environment, and a group concerned with the rights of the handicapped, operated unfettered, although they had yet to receive the Government's approval by year's end.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion of Mauritania, and all citizens are, by law, Sunni Muslim and prohibited from converting to another religion. Proselytizing by non-Muslims is prohibited, and Mauritanians are prohibited from entering non-Islamic houses of worship and from possessing sacred texts of other religions. The small Lebanese Shi'a community is allowed to practice its religion privately. The expatriate Christian community is allowed to hold worship services that are restricted to resident foreigners.

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

Historically there were few restrictions on movement within Mauritania, where nomadism has long been a way of life. The Government has ended previous strictures on movement along the riverine area imposed by local authorities following the rupture of relations with Senegal in 1989 and the attendant violence. Travelers are regularly stopped and papers checked by the Gendarmerie on the roads between towns and on the outskirts of Nouakchott and other large towns. No cases were reported of persons being denied passports for political reasons. The approximately 200,000 Mauritanian Maurs expelled by the Government of Senegal in 1989-90 have now been largely absorbed through government and private means. Some of them have settled on land belonging to Africans who were expelled by Mauritania during the 1989-90 crisis, heightening ethnic tensions in the Senegal River Valley. Of the approximately 60,000 African-Mauritanians who were expelled, an estimated 56,000 remain in refugee settlements in Senegal, the others presumably having returned to Mauritania or been absorbed into the Senegalese population. The 1989 crisis also led approximately 13,000 Mauritanian Peuhl to take refuge in Mali. Although the overwhelming majority apparently continue to remain there, some reportedly have returned. The Government claims that it places no restrictions on the return of those expelled in 1989-90, including the Senegalese previously resident in Mauritania, and some refugees have traveled to Mauritania to visit family or to seek work. In the town of Debaye, 705 of the former 1,000 residents returned. The Government appeared to be encouraging a gradual case-by-case repatriation. In some areas regional and local government officials have encouraged refugees to return and have promised to issue new identity papers, return their land (or land nearby in cases where other settlers now occupy their land), and provide economic assistance to farmers. Authorities have fulfilled their promises of support for some returning refugees but not for others. The impasse for the 56,000 refugees still in Senegal centers on their demands that the Mauritanian Government repatriate them en masse and acknowledge having expelled its own citizens, issue the refugees identity papers before their return, return their land, animals, and other personal goods, and pay compensation for their losses. Toward the latter part of the year, the Government began meeting with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to discuss conditions for repatriation. However, the Government has so far failed to set up clear administrative, much less judicial, procedures for expellees wishing to obtain confirmation of their citizenship and associated rights. The Taya Government has always maintained that most persons who fled or were expelled in the wake of the 1989 crisis were, in fact, Senegalese nationals and that their Mauritanian identity documents were fraudulent. However, certification of identity was problematic because security forces had destroyed or confiscated many of the deportees' identity documents during the 1989-90 expulsions. At year's end, the UNHCR was beginning to arrange for the gradual return to Mali of some of the over 46,000 Tuareg and Maur refugees residing in camps in southeastern Mauritania. These refugees had fled to Mauritania in 1991-92 following conflict between Tuareg factions and government forces in Mali's northern regions.

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

Citizens have not been able to exercise their Constitutional right to change their government through free and fair elections. The 1992 multiparty election of a civilian President ended 14 years of military rule, but the elections were considered by international observers and the opposition to have been marred by fraud. Moreover, the military continued to provide strong support to the regime, and some previous Military Council members, in addition to President Taya, remained in positions of power within the armed forces and elsewhere in the Government. For example, the President of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, was a former army colonel. As the major opposition parties, including the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), boycotted the 1992 legislative elections, the President's party, the PRDS, has near-total control of the National Assembly, 106 seats out of 132. The opposition political parties announced that they would participate in the municipal elections scheduled for early 1994. In preparation for these elections, the Government met with leaders of the major opposition parties and updated the voter registration rolls. Although the PRDS enjoys the advantages of incumbency, it nonetheless faces strong opposition in a number of constituencies, including the capital city, other major towns, and in some southern border areas. The main opposition party, the UFD, draws its support particularly from the African-Mauritanian community as well as from Maurs opposed to Taya and his group and a significant percentage of the Haratine class. Only a few of the other parties have a wide popular following, though a recently created centrist party will run candidates for municipal office in a number of constituencies. Women have the right to vote, although few are active in political parties. There were five women in senior government positions: Counselor to the President, the Assistant Director of the President's Cabinet, the Secretary of State for the Condition of Women (raised to Cabinet level in 1993), and the Secretaries General of the Ministries of Commerce and of Justice. There is one elected woman Senator belonging to the ruling party, the PRDS, and one elected town mayor. There is only 1 female senator in a Parliament totaling 132 members. While there are black Mauritanians in senior positions in the Government, they are underrepresented. Of the 17 Ministers in Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar's Cabinet, 3 are black Maurs, 1 is Pulaar, and 1 Soninke. The other ministers are white Maurs.

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

The only officially recognized human rights organization within the country, the Mauritanian League for Human Rights (HRL), was increasingly active on behalf of human rights. The League, through its newspaper and press statements, did not criticize the President or top officials directly, but it openly criticized the amnesty law granting immunity from prosecution for those guilty of violations dating from the 1990-91 period. The Government continued to withhold recognition from the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (HRA), which applied for a permit in 1991, and two women's rights groups that were active in 1993: the Support Committee, for assistance to the wives and orphans of victims of the 1990-91 military purge; and the Collective of Families Separated by Deportation, which represented the spouses (mainly female) and children of persons who were deported to Senegal during the 1989 crisis. Nevertheless, the Government allowed these associations to function. The HRA was extremely active in pursuing its agenda, specifically in providing information to the press and in sponsoring seminars. The Government has still not processed the applications for recognition from the HRA and many other institutions, partly out of suspicion toward NGO activities in general and partly to keep potential opposition groups on a short leash. In July the Government created a post of mediator or "Ombudsman" to assist citizens with problems they may have with government institutions. Requests for assistance must go through Members of Parliament. There have been no reports as yet of the mediator's effectiveness. Representatives of the Government as well as delegates from the League for Human Rights, the Association of Mauritanians in Senegal, and the Committee of Solidarity with the Victims of Repression in Mauritania all attended a March meeting in Banjul of the International Commission of Jurists, where they openly aired their differences on the human rights situation in Mauritania. During a subsequent visit to Mauritania, members of the International Commission of Jurists met with government officials, human rights monitors, and others to discuss the human rights situation in Mauritania. However, the Government was selective in its approach to international organizations. It cooperated with the International Labor Organization (ILO) (see Section 6.a.), Amnesty International, and the ICRC (see Section 1 .c.). The Government refused to permit a visit by Africa Watch, a U.S.-based human rights group which has published articles highly critical of the Government's human rights record.

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

The 1991 Constitution's first article 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 operates under a hierarchy of unwritten rules where constitutional and other legally mandated rights, protections, and benefits are often accorded on the basis of racial or tribal affiliation, social status, and political influence.


Women have legal rights to property, divorce and child custody and, among the more modern and urbanized population, these rights are observed. In theory, both marriage and divorce can take place without a woman's consent. Polygyny exists as sanctioned by the teachings of Islam; a woman does not have the right to refuse her husbands's wish to be polygynous. In fact, such practices are increasingly rare. Women are also subjected to domestic violence, including wife beating. In recognition of this and to mark International Women's Day, the United Nations Development Program sponsored a roundtable on violence against women. A large turnout included government representatives and, for the first time, all types of physical and psychological abuse against women were publicly aired. The police and judiciary occasionally intervene in domestic disputes, but women in traditional society usually do not attempt legal redress, preferring to turn to family and ethnic groups to resolve domestic disputes. There are no legal restrictions on education for women, although the number of women attending university remained low. The Government has been instrumental in opening up new employment opportunities for women in areas traditionally reserved for men, such as hospital work. By law, men and women must receive equal pay for equal work; and while far from universally applied in practice, the two largest employers, the civil service and the State Mining Company, SNIM, respect this law. In the modern (wage) sector, women also receive generous family benefits, including 3 months of maternity leave. Once they return to work after giving birth, they are allowed 1 hour of leave per day to nurse their child.


Children's rights are subsumed under the general provisions of law dealing with other civil rights. Government policy concentrates on the desperate economic conditions which a serous threat to children in this young population. Although child labor laws exist, they are not enforced and are seen as irrelevant by some in this tradition-bound society. Children often perform significant labor in support of their families' activities. Female genital mutilation (circumcision), which has been condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, is performed at an early age and is still widely practiced. Evidence indicates, however, that the incidence is diminishing in the modern, urbanized sector. Of the country's main population groups – Maurs and Africans – all except the Wolofs in the African group practice genital mutilation. Some groups practice infibulation, the most severe form of mutilation. The Government has not attempted to interfere with these traditional practices, but it permits some government health workers to educate midwives on the health dangers of the practice and of the fact that Islam does not require it.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Mauritania is situated geographically and culturally on the divide between traditionally nomadic Arabic-speaking (Hassaniya) Maurs of the north and sedentary black African cultivators and herders who historically lived along the Senegal river in the south. Though culturally homogeneous, the Maurs are divided among numerous tribal groups and are racially distinguished as white (Beydane) or black (Haratine, literally "one who has been freed"). The southern black Africans represent three main ethnic groups – the Halpulaar, the Wolof, and the Soninke. The interaction of these groups produces complex cultural diversity as well as ethnic tensions. During the colonial period, the French administered what is now Mauritania as part of French West Africa through reliance on the more settled black Africans who dominated the economy and civil service. This situation dramatically shifted following the partition of West Africa and the creation of an independent Mauritania. Northern Maurs dominated the newly established government and modern economic sectors centered in the capital of Nouakchott and initially coexisted with, but had little interaction with, the traditional nonmarket economies in the far reaches of the country. Also, 20 years of severe drought, desertification, and urbanization have ended the centuries-old nomadic way of life. Maurs have pressed further south into the more fertile river area, exacerbating tensions between farmers and herders, and between ethnic groups. The tensions surfaced dramatically in the mass expulsions of African-Mauritanians in 1989-90. Black Africans charge that the Government's 1983 land reform law is being misused to allow Maurs to encroach on fertile land in the Senegal river valley that traditionally has been the preserve of black Africans. The tensions have also been exacerbated by successive government regimes – both civil and military – vigorously pursuing a policy of "Arabization" of the schools and the work force, which has the effect of serious discrimination against non-Hassaniya-speaking African-Mauritanians. Consequently, white Maurs now hold the majority of top positions in Government, state enterprises, business, and religious institutions. African-Mauritanians and black Maurs are likewise underrepresented in the senior ranks of other key institutions, such as the military and security forces. Many Africans and human rights groups contend that this situation is a result of ethnic and linguistic discrimination. Taken together, the black Maurs and Africans outnumber the white Maurs by a considerable majority. No precise figures are available, as the Government has not released the results of the last census taken in 1988. This racial majority, however, is by no means cohesive as there is little cultural identity or political cohesion between the Haratines, who identify with the Arab/Berber tribal culture of the north, and the southern African ethnic groups. Although relations between ethnic groups have improved since the explosion of ethnic violence in April 1989, tension and bitterness persist. The Government's subsequent extrajudicial expulsions and reprisals by the security forces were clearly based on ethnicity. There are reports that the Government has begun to rehire some African-Mauritanians summarily dismissed from their jobs during the 1989 crisis.

People with Disabilities

The Government has no legislation or regulations providing preference in employment or education for disabled persons, and has been able to afford only limited facilities easing access for the disabled. There is no legislation mandating accessibility.

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. However, many restrictive military decrees are still nominally in effect which circumscribe these and other constitutional rights. In 1993 the Goverment cooperated with the International Labor Organization (ILO) in preparing a revision of its current Labor Code to bring it into closer conformity with international standards. The revised code is expected to be completed and passed into law in 1994. Prior to 1993, the government-controlled labor central, the Union of Mauritanian Workers (UTM), consisting of 36 unions, was the only labor confederation allowed by law. It remains the major worker confederation and is still close to the Government and the PRDS. A 1993 amendment to the Labor Code repealed provisions restricting trade union pluralism, and new confederations have developed to rival the UTM. In particular, the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CGTM) is competing actively with the UTM, which is still viewed by many workers as a tool of the Government. The CGTM, though not formally aligned with a political party, favors the Union of Democratic Forces, the major opposition political party. Another group of workers organized the Confederation of the Free Syndicates of Mauritania (CSLM) which declared itself free from politics, with its only concern being worker rights. Although they were permitted to function, neither of the two newly organized confederations had received recognition from the Government by year's end. The CGTM made a formal protest charging that its affiliates were being harassed by local government leaders. The UTM participates in regional labor organizations, but international trade union activity is minimal. Most workers are engaged in subsistence agriculture (informal sector) and animal husbandry and only a small number, 20 percent, are employed in the wage sector. However, close to 90 percent of industrial and commercial workers in Mauritania are members of unions. Some trade union leaders expressed concern that, given the small size of the formal sector in the economy, the increased competition among unions for members could fragment and weaken labor's bargaining strength. Although Mauritanian law grants workers the right to strike, strikes rarely occur because of government pressure. The law also stipulates that tripartite arbitration committees composed of union, business, and government representatives may impose binding arbitration that automatically terminates any strike. In practice, strikes are rare and appear to consist of brief, wildcat strikes by small groups of workers. In December the independent press reported a several-hour work stoppage in Nouakchott by bus drivers protesting the hiring of foreigners by the government-owned bus company. The ILO continues to criticize the Government for violation of worker rights, noting in particular charges of forced labor. In July the United States Trade Representative announced that Mauritania's eligibility for United States Government Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits had been revoked for failure to respect freedom of association and to take steps to eliminate forced labor, including slavery.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

By law, unions are free to organize workers without government or employer interference. Genuine collective bargaining does not exist, however, because of the Government's heavy-handed role in shaping labor relations. Wages and other benefits are decided informally among individual unions (all controlled by the UTM until 1993), employers, and the Government. There are laws providing workers protection against antiunion discrimination. Technically, employees or employers may bring labor disputes to three-person labor courts that are overseen jointly by the Ministries of Justice and Labor, but human rights groups charge that labor courts are controlled by the Government's race-based political program. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Although slavery has been officially abolished several times – most recently in 1980 – the legacy of slavery remains pervasive, particularly in its economic and psychological manifestations. Tens of thousands of persons whose ancestors were slaves still occupy positions of servitude and near servitude. Many of these are freed slaves (Haratine) who, because of economic necessity, have either stayed with, or returned to, their former masters. The most common situation involves Haratine who live independently but continue, from a sense of fear and duty, to perform unpaid labor for their former masters. Anedotal accounts indicate that there still may be individuals forcibly held against their will in urban areas as well as in isolated communities. Their numbers are difficult to quantify, although credible reports indicate that there are from 30,000 to 90,000 people living in slavery. In the freer political arena of 1993, a movement, entitled, El Hor (literally "the free man") developed an agenda to eradicate the vestiges of slavery and the associated mentality among former slaves. According to the independent press, the Government recently intervened to return to her family a young girl who had been kidnaped and held in bondage as an unpaid herder.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Education is not compulsory, and only a small percentage of children regularly attend government schools. The law specifies that no child may be employed under the age of 13 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 aged 14 to 16 should receive 70 percent of the minimum wage, and those from 17 to 18 should receive 90 percent of the minimum wage. In practice, the Labor Ministry's few inspectors provide only limited enforcement of child labor laws. 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. In Nouakchott and other large towns, youths in their early teens typically work as mechanics, blacksmiths, furniture makers, plumbers, and electricians. They can also be found in shops, gas stations, and laundry establishments, in private homes as domestics, and on the streets as petty vendors. The phenomenon of young workers is likely to increase, as urbanization proceeds apace.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The guaranteed minimum wage for adults was raised following a devaluation of the national currency in October 1992. It still barely enables the average family to meet its minimum needs. The minimum wage is currently set by decree at $67 (ougiya 8,300) per month or approximately $700 per year; per capita gross domestic product is $520. The standard, legal, nonagricultural workweek cannot 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. Enforcement of the labor laws is the responsibility of the Labor Inspectorate of the Ministry of Labor, but in practice the Directorate is limited by the shortage of qualified personnel. Likewise, although the Government sets health and safety standards, which are theoretically enforced by the Ministry of Labor, enforcement of these standards is inconsistent.

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