The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, including by children. It also criminalizes the practice of slavery and imposes penalties both on government officials who do not take action on reported cases and on those who benefit from contracting forced labor. The 2015 amendments to the law expand the definition of slavery to include forced labor and child labor. Although the government took some action toward ending slavery, such as the adoption of the Roadmap for the Eradication of the Vestiges of Slavery in 2014, its efforts to enforce the 2007 antislavery law were widely seen as inadequate, given the severity of the problem.
Tadamoun, the government agency charged with combating the “vestiges” of slavery, received 7.5 billion ouguiyas ($21.1 million) of public funding. Nevertheless, its progress continued to be slow, and evidence of programs directly reducing the “vestiges” of slavery was minimal. Throughout the year Tadamoun’s director general underscored his intention to address the vestiges of slavery through indirect means, such as awareness campaigns and local agriculture projects, rather than through submitting criminal claims on behalf of slavery victims, despite Tadamoun’s directive to do so.
In 2015 the country provisionally established three antislavery courts, as mandated by the 2015 amendments to the antislavery law, and appointed three judges to the courts. A January 2016 decree legally formalized the structure of the courts, and all three courts were formally inaugurated in 2016. The first court was inaugurated in May 2016 in Nema, in the willaya (region) of Hodh El Gharbi in the southeast. The second was inaugurated in Nouakchott in July 2016. A third was inaugurated in November 2016 in Nouadhibou. The courts, however, still lacked funding and resources, and none of the appointed judges had received training in how to deal with the unique challenges of investigating slavery cases, including how to prevent slave owners from intimidating victims and victims from withdrawing their cases. In addition, regular courts failed to refer slavery cases to the antislavery courts for prosecution, further delaying cases.
In 2016 the court of Nema convicted and sentenced two men for slavery. The court sentenced Sidi Mohamed Ould Hanana and Hlehana Ould Hmeyada, who are cousins, to five years’ imprisonment with one year to be served and four years suspended with supervision/probation, significantly less than the maximum 10 years’ imprisonment allowed under the law. The court also imposed a fine of 100,000 ouguiyas ($281) and ordered payment of one million ouguiyas ($2,810) in restitution to each of the two female victims.
Immediately after Hanana’s 2015 arrest, his family reportedly entered a financial agreement with the family of his victim for 3.5 million ouguiyas ($9,860), as had routinely happened in previous cases. The amount was paid to the family, but unlike in previous cases the financial agreement did not stop the case from proceeding. According to the court, Hmeyada’s family, meanwhile, was also involved in the crime but could not be prosecuted because they lived in northern Mali, outside the court’s jurisdiction.
Slavery and slavery-like practices, which typically flowed from ancestral master-slave relationships and involved both adults and children, continued throughout the year. Although reliable data on the total number of slaves did not exist, local and international experts agreed hereditary slavery continued to affect a significant portion of the population in both rural and urban settings. Enslaved persons suffered from traditional chattel slavery, including forced labor and forced sexual exploitation. Children of slaves at times became the property of their masters and could be passed from one owner to another as gifts. Human rights groups reported that masters persuaded persons in slavery and slave-like relationships to deny such exploitative relationships to human rights activists.
Former slaves and their descendants remained in a dependent status with their former slave owners in part due to cultural tradition and a lack of marketable skills, poverty, and persistent drought. Some former slaves and descendants of slaves were forced or had no other viable option than to work for their old masters in exchange for some combination of lodging, food, and medical care. Some former slaves reportedly continued to work for their former masters or others under exploitative conditions to retain access to land that they traditionally farmed. Although the law provides for distribution of land to the landless, including to former slaves, authorities rarely enforced the law.
Former slaves in subservient circumstances were also vulnerable to mistreatment. Women with children faced particular difficulties; because they were particularly vulnerable in society and lacked the resources to live independently from their former masters, they could be compelled to remain in a condition of servitude, performing domestic duties, tending fields, or herding animals without remuneration.
Both NGO observers and government officials suggested that deeply embedded psychological and tribal bonds made it difficult for many individuals whose ancestors had been slaves for generations to break their bonds with former masters or their tribes. Some persons continued to link themselves to former masters because they believed their slave status had been divinely ordained or feared religious punishment if that bond was broken. Former slaves were often subjected to social discrimination and limited to performing manual labor in markets, ports, and airports.
Slavery and dependency of former slaves occurred primarily in areas where educational levels were generally low or a barter economy still prevailed, and in urban centers, including Nouakchott, where domestic servitude was relatively common. The practices commonly occurred where there was a need for workers to herd livestock, tend fields, and do other manual or household labor.
Forced labor also occurred in urban centers where young children, often girls, were retained as unpaid domestic servants (see section 7.c.).
The government signed a formal agreement with Saudi Arabia to send 15,000 domestic workers from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia, despite evidence that Mauritanian workers had experienced abuse in Saudi Arabia in the past. This agreement was widely denounced by Mauritanian worker confederations due to the risk of fraudulent recruiting, trafficking, and abuse.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.