Slavery in Mauritania

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The slavery in Mauritania , despite their repeated official abolition - most recently in 2007 - continued, affecting the descendants of enslaved generations ago and still not released people who 'Abid ( sing . Abd ). They serve the "white Moors" ( Bidhan ) as slaves . "Black Moors " or Haratin are the former, released slaves who, according to rough estimates, make up 40 percent of the population.

Slavery is seen by large parts of the Mauritanian population as a mere historical fact. The number of slaves in the country is unknown, but human rights groups estimate it to be in the hundreds of thousands. According to Kevin Bales , the proportion of slaves in the total population is the highest in the world.

History and society

The Mauritanian society is traditionally divided into hierarchical classes or status groups and at the same time horizontally into tribes (Qabila) , both among the Arab- Berber Bidhan and among the black African Soudans . In the 20th century, especially since independence, there were considerable changes in these class and tribal structures, which, however, are still largely effective today as a formative element of society.

The ancestors of today's black Moors were members of various black African ethnic groups who had been brought into slavery generations ago. They worked mainly as cattle herders, farm laborers and in the household of their owners and gradually adapted to them culturally. Like their masters, the majority of them are Muslims today and are viewed as Moors, not as members of the black African population (Soudans or Afromauretanians) of Mauritania.

The black Soudans also traditionally pursued slavery ( see also Inner African slave trade ); There are different statements as to whether they still do this today. The Haratin are classified in the social hierarchy in two ways: once as a group of the Haratin and at the same time as tribal members of their former masters who belong to the group of warriors (Hassan) , Islamic scholars (Zwaya) or vassals (Zenaga) . There were Haratin who owned slaves themselves.

Since the 1930s, slaves were allowed to move freely throughout Mauritania, which gave them better opportunities to escape. In the predominantly nomadic way of life, they were able to settle in the few French administrative posts and get work as domestic staff or craftsmen. The small towns grew mainly due to slaves and Haratins who moved in. The tradition of slavery survived the French colonial period until 1960. The drought of 1968/69 contributed to the separation of slaves and their now impoverished masters.

From the 1960s, former slaves (Haratin) began to organize, namely in the human rights organization El Hor (Arabic al-ḥurr , "the free"), which was founded in the early 1970s , and there were protests against the system of slavery. Drought, hunger and the spread of the desert in the 1970s and 1980s ( see famine in the Sahel zone ) and the resulting rural exodus also changed the lives of some slaves who came into contact with the more modern world of cities. Slaves who could not be fed by their masters were released during this time without, of course, having a livelihood.

There have been four attempts in Mauritanian history to legislate to abolish slavery. The French colonial rulers made the first attempt in 1905. In the constitution when the country gained independence in 1961, slavery is mentioned a second time, but only indirectly. The following Slavery Act was passed on November 9, 1981. Article 2 regulates the compensation of the “claimants”, ie what the slave owners should receive in return for the release of their servant slaves. No implementing ordinances have been developed for any of the three laws or penalties have been issued for violations.

The most recent law of August 8, 2007 criminalized slavery for the first time. It was intended as a foreign policy signal to the United States and the European Union. The presidential election of March 2007 already featured the abolition of slavery. The relationship between Islam and slavery was discussed. There are three different positions for this:

  • Slavery is not forbidden in Islam .
  • Islam keeps out of this question and can therefore neither be used as a legitimation nor as a reason for the abolition of slavery.
  • Islam was previously used to legitimize slavery, but the question must be discussed anew for today's conditions.

The law was extremely controversial in parliament, many parliamentarians saw no wrong in slavery and just no longer considered it to be appropriate. In everyday life, the law is often undermined by lengthy procedures. Trials are delayed and the slaves have the burden of proof that they are slaves. This regulation protects the slave owners.

According to the government, there are at most "traces of slavery" in the country today; Mauritanian human rights organizations like El Hor and SOS Esclaves as well as international organizations like Anti-Slavery International see it differently.

Todays situation

The Mauritanian organization SOS Esclaves suspects up to 600,000 slaves in Mauritania, which corresponds to 20% of the total population. The number cannot be verified.

A common name for male Mauritanian slaves is Bilal , after the former slave of the same name of Umayya ibn Chalaf and confidante of the Islamic prophet Mohammed .

The treatment and situation of the slaves is different. There are examples of both "humane" treatment and cruelty. Slave children can be taken away from their parents and passed on or sold. Some slaves would be allowed on the part of their masters to leave, but they do not, as there would be little economic livelihood in freedom in poor Mauritania. Others are being detained with threats and violence.

To date, no slave owner has ever been convicted. In some cases the police and the courts even supported the slave owners. After the Sharia slavery is permitted, even if the slaves are Muslims. Muslims are simply not allowed to be re-enslaved. Some slave owners expect compensation before releasing their slaves. The government has long denied the existence of slavery and hindered the work of human rights organizations against this practice. The slavery expert Kevin Bales had to pretend to be a zoologist in the second half of the 1990s in order to enter Mauritania and do research.

In 2005 the SOS Esclaves organization was officially recognized. The 2007 law punishes slavery with up to 10 years in prison.

One reason for the government's long reluctance to act is that slavery is an important institution in Mauritania and helps to secure the power of the elite of the white Moors. An emancipation of the slaves and their union with the Soudans or Afromauretans living in the south of Mauritania would shake the power of this elite. In particular, the question of the handover of land owned by white Moors to the (former) slaves would arise in order to provide them with a livelihood and to compensate them. However, land is generally scarce, so that the current owners do not want to give up on it.

“There is no slavery in Mauritania today, but wherever you look, you can see slaves on every street corner and in every shop, in all fields and pastures. They sweep and clean, they cook and look after the children, they build houses and tend sheep, haul water and bricks - they do all the work that is tedious, unpleasant and dirty. The Mauritanian economy rests solely on their shoulders; Only their never-ending drudgery enables the masters to have a comfortable life and even guarantees the livelihood of those who do not keep slaves. "

- Kevin Bales : The New Slavery


  • Kevin Bales: The New Slavery . Antje Kunstmann, Munich 2001, ISBN 978-3888972645 (pp. 109–160)
  • John Mercer: The Haratin. Mauritania's slaves. Ed .: Society for Threatened Peoples, Göttingen 1982, ISBN 3-922197-10-8
  • Anthony G. Pazzanita: Historical Dictionary of Mauritania. Scarecrow Press, Lanham (Maryland) 3rd ed. 2008, keyword “Slavery”, pp. 477–486

Broadcast reports

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh: Traditional societies and social change in Mauritania. In: Ursel Clausen (Ed.): Mauritania - an introduction. German Orient Institute, Hamburg 1994, p. 24f
  2. Christine Hardung: The law n ° 2007-048 to punish slavery. In: inamo 61, spring 2010, pp. 27–33
  3. Barbara Vorsamer: Slaves on every street corner - despite the ban ., May 17, 2010, accessed on January 2, 2013.
  4. ^ Anti-Slavery International : Mauritania lifts ban on anti-slavery group ( Memento of March 30, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) . June 10, 2005, accessed January 2, 2013.