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Statement delivered by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance

Nouakchott, Mauritania, 8 September 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I undertook an official visit to Mauritania from 2 to 8 September 2013. During my visit, I have held meetings in Nouakchott, Rosso and Kaedi. I have met the highest representatives of the Government, at the national and local levels, as well as representatives of civil society, non-governmental organizations, human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations including slavery-like practices and racial discrimination.

I would like to thank the Government of Mauritania for the invitation extended to me and the cooperation provided before and during my visit. I would like to thank all the authorities I met for the insightful and rich discussions I had with them. I am also grateful for the fruitful discussions with the civil society organizations and to the victims who courageously shared their stories with me. I would also like to thank the United Nations Country Team, and particularly the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for their invaluable support and the exchanges I had with them.

I came to Mauritania to evaluate progress made since my predecessor first visited the country in 2008, obtain an up-to-date understanding of the situation in the country and identify the remaining challenges to the elimination of racism and racial discrimination. I also intended to engage constructively with the Government on possible ways of ensuring successful realization of laws, policies and measures undertaken in the fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and formulate recommendations to support the Government to effectively address racism and racial discrimination.

I would like to underline that this follow up visit is a great opportunity to assess Mauritania’s compliance with its international obligations and the implementation of the recommendations made by the various human rights mechanisms. In this regard let me begin by commending the Government for acceding to many international human rights instruments. The cooperation between Mauritania and international human rights mechanisms, special procedures, treaty bodies and UPR, must also be acknowledged. There is no doubt that there has been real progress in the implementation of some of the recommendations made by human rights mechanisms, namely the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission, the amendment of the constitution to acknowledge the country’s ethno-cultural diversity, the adoption of the law on slavery, just to name a few. Yet a number of challenges still persists and should be addressed as a matter of priority.

The process to elaborate the national plan of action against racial discrimination which has just started is also another positive step and the Government has to be given credit for embarking on this road. Yet the national plan of action must be based on a thorough analysis/assessment of all the facets of discrimination in the country; the process for developing the plan must be inclusive and participatory so that all involved can claim ownership over it and monitor its implementation; the result of the process must be sufficiently concrete to be measurable. I myself observed at the workshop convened by the Government and OHCHR on Tuesday this week how the questions related to discrimination and exclusion heat the hearts and minds of people and that is why it is all the more important that all stakeholders can exchange and debate about the content of the plan of action.

A thorough assessment cannot be undertaken without statistics disaggregated by descent and ethnic origin, sex and age; as CERD recommended in 2004 the collection of such statistics should be based on self-identification. Without ethnically disaggregated data, it remains difficult to determine the situation of marginalized groups and assess progress in addressing discrimination and exclusion. Without baseline data and indicators it also remains difficult to assess whether the development programmes put in place by the Government, which are absolutely important and much needed, have results in the intended aim to improve the living conditions of those groups who have been historically discriminated.

While conscious that data have to be used sensibly, it is essential that the state demonstrates its political will by investing in independent studies, assessment and surveys that can contribute to analyse the situation, monitor progress and evaluate results. The UN agencies and bilateral donors are encouraged to support the Government in this endeavour.

While commending the achievements in enacting different pieces of legislation and in establishing the necessary institutions on combatting discrimination and slavery-like practices, I note that there are significant challenges in the pace and effective implementation of the law. As a result, many individuals are losing confidence in these institutions and the justice system. There is a need to improve the effectiveness of these institutions in addressing the problems of discrimination and to win public confidence in their effectiveness and commitment to implementing the law. It is also instrumental to allocate adequate resources to relevant institutions and strengthen their capacities and expertise. In this regard, I noted the promotion of the concept of social cohesion as an opportunity to streamline and focus different action plans and national programs. I encourage different Ministries to include in their annual budgets adequate resources to tackle issues of racial, ethnic, and caste discrimination as well as slavery-like practices within their areas of responsibility and maintain the continued cooperation with relevant UN agencies, and in particular with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mauritania.

Efforts to implement the 2007 Tripartite Agreement which enabled the return of more than 24 000 Mauritanians between 2008 and 2012 are noteworthy. Yet the painful memories of the 1989 events remains vivid in the lives of many women, men, girls and boys who lost loved ones, houses and land, and identification papers. I heard a number of concerns related to difficulties in registration, compensation and reparation for some of the returnees, continuing land disputes and the lack of accountability for the human rights violations committed at that time. Addressing urgently these concerns must be on the agenda for national reconciliation and are pre-requisite for building an inclusive and diverse society.

I have found that the Mauritanian society is deeply stratified; discrimination along ethnic or caste lines cuts across and within communities; poverty also cuts across and within communities. It is important to recognize poverty as underlying cause of discrimination, as the Government has set to do by investing substantially in programmes to uplift historically marginalized groups from poverty. Upliftment and improvement of living conditions, even if fully achieved, may, though, not necessarily eradicate all forms of discrimination. As my predecessor found, although discrimination is not to be found in the letter of the law, de facto many individuals feel that they do not have equal opportunities vis à vis education, employment, business opportunities. For example language is perceived as a means of domination of some groups over others. The reform to introduce bilingualism in education is commendable but the country needs to shift to an effective bilingualism to provide equal opportunities for all. Alongside bilingualism, it is important that the other languages are promoted and taught. Another manifestation of exclusion felt by some groups, which I regularly heard, is the insufficient diversity in key Government and public administration posts. Inclusion of all the groups in all sectors of administration and private economy is key to the promotion of democracy, national reconciliation and cohesion.

Although slavery has been outlawed, there are still individuals who are victims of slavery-like practices. Women and girls in such conditions continue to be particularly vulnerable and subject to various forms of violence, including sexual violence. The institutional and legal frameworks have to be given teeth so that perpetrators are held to account. Amendment to the 2007 anti-slavery law to provide for capacity of NGOs to act on behalf of victims of slavery like practices could be a way to combat impunity for these human rights violations. In addition support services for those freed from slavery-like conditions remain limited and must strengthened.

These are my preliminary findings after spending 8 days in the country. I will present my report to the Human Rights Council in June 2014 and hope to continue the constructive dialogue initiated with the Government throughout.

Thank you for your attention.