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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers Mauritania’s report

GENEVE (2 May 2018) - The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today concluded its consideration of the combined eighth to fourteenth periodic report of Mauritania on its implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Presenting the report, Cheikh Tourad Ould Abdel Malick, Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Action of Mauritania, noted that Mauritania had relevant judicial and institutional frameworks to combat racial discrimination.  The principle of non-discrimination was enshrined in the 1991 Constitution, and it was concretely respected in terms of equality in taxation, access to justice, equal salaries and employment, and access to public services.  All Mauritanians were represented in the Government, the Parliament, the judiciary, the armed forces and security forces, the police, and other branches of administration.  The Government had adopted several laws to combat racial discrimination, and it had held several workshops on the Convention’s provisions for civil servants and members of non-governmental organizations.  The provisions of the Convention were directly applied in the country, could be invoked by the courts, and had precedence over national laws.  Ideas of racial superiority and racial hatred, as well as any incitement to racial hatred, were punishable under the law.  In order to strengthen national unity, the authorities had banned the alignment of political parties with any racial group, ethnicity, or tribe.

Irabiha Abdel Wedoud, President of the National Commission for Human Rights of Mauritania, said that in order to ensure more effective implementation of the Convention, the Commission had recommended that the Government mobilize development partners and all specialized institutions in the fight against racial discrimination and in the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations; strengthen civic education programmes; implement special measures for vulnerable groups, such as rural women and persons with disabilities; strengthen human rights training for law enforcement forces; and conduct public awareness raising campaigns against racial discrimination.

During the discussion with the delegation, Committee Experts regretted the absence of a definition of discrimination in line with the Convention, and observed that Mauritania had taken not taken special measures for groups that might have been affected by discrimination on the grounds of race, colour of skin, or ethnic origin.  The Haratines (black Moors) as descendants of slaves were a particularly vulnerable group, suffering from political and economic marginalization.  Experts stressed that it was important to modify social attitudes with respect to slavery, and they welcomed the fact that a law from 2015 treated slavery as a crime against humanity.  Experts welcomed the bourgeoning civil society in Mauritania, and the fact that the majority of organizations were headed by women.  They inquired about progress achieved in the implementation of the 2014 Government road map for the eradication of slavery, the repatriation of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal, the reform of the Citizenship Law to allow Mauritanian women to transfer nationality to their children, the high illiteracy rate and school dropout among women, multiple discrimination of women, the status of the draft Law on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the national day to commemorate slavery and teaching about slavery in historical textbooks, imprisoned dissidents, the country’s legal system, birth registration, granting of identity documents to Mauritanian returnees from Senegal, and the registration process for civil society organizations.  
     
In his concluding remarks, Marc Bossuyt, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Mauritania, thanked the delegation for their responses, and commended the genuine efforts taken by the Government to address the consequences of slavery.  It would be in the interest of the Government to cooperate on that matter with civil society.  

The head of the delegation on his part reiterated the commitment of the Government of Mauritania to pursue a constructive dialogue with the Committee, and to implement its recommendations.

Committee Chairperson Noureddine Amir thanked the delegation for having shed more light on the situation in Mauritania, and expressed hope that the State party would submit its next periodic report within the stipulated deadline.  

The delegation of Mauritania included representatives of the Ministry of Human Rights, the Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Childhood and Family, and the Permanent Mission of Mauritania to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public today at 3 p.m. to consider the combined twenty-second and twenty-third periodic report of Sweden (CERD/C/SWE/22-23).

Report

The Committee has before it the combined eighth to fourteenth report of Mauritania: CERD/C/MRT/8-14.

Presentation of the Report

CHEIKH TOURAD OULD ABDEL MALICK, Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Action of Mauritania, noted that the promotion and protection of human rights was at the heart of Mauritania’s policies and programmes, as evidenced by important judicial, administrative and other measures taken by the Government to implement the Convention.  The country had relevant judicial and institutional frameworks to combat racial discrimination.  The principle of non-discrimination was enshrined in the 1991 Constitution, and it was concretely respected in terms of equality in taxation, access to justice, equal salaries and employment, and access to public services.  All Mauritanians were represented in the Government, the Parliament, the judiciary, the armed forces and the security forces, the police, and other branches of the administration.  The Constitution guaranteed women the right to participate in public life, and special measures had been taken in the electoral domain to improve the political representation of women.  The recently adopted Law on Childhood penalized female genital mutilation, and it was about to be signed by the President of Mauritania.  The Government had adopted several laws to combat racial discrimination, and it had held several workshops on the Convention provisions for civil servants, and members of non-governmental organizations.  The provisions of the Convention were directly applied in the country, could be invoked by the courts, and had precedence over national laws.  Ideas of racial superiority and racial hatred, as well as any incitement to racial hatred, were punishable under the law.  In order to strengthen national unity, the authorities had banned the alignment of political parties with any racial group, ethnicity, or tribe.  Some 103 political parties and 5,707 associations freely exercised their activities in line with article four of the Convention.  Their existence and activities testified to the diversity of Mauritanian society and contributed to the strengthening of national unity.  

The head of the delegation reminded that the Labour Law stipulated equality in access to employment, and it banned any discrimination on the basis of race, origin, colour, sex, political opinion or social background.  The Penal Code criminalized acts of discrimination and stipulated punishment according to the severity of the crime.  Proud of its cultural and linguistic diversity, Mauritania ensured the preservation and promotion of national languages and of cultural heritage.  According to the Constitution, the national languages were Arabic, Pulaar, Soninké and Wolof, whereas Arabic was the official language.  The country had actively contributed to the fight against racial discrimination through its opposition to Apartheid and its participation in the Durban Conference in 2001.  In order to implement the Committee’s previous concluding observations, Mauritania had elaborated a project to criminalize discrimination by incorporating the definition of discrimination as contained in the Convention, and in 2007 it had adopted a law that criminalized slavery.  The Government had worked to reform the legal framework vis-à-vis slavery, and to raise public awareness about the unlawfulness of slavery.  As for the return and reintegration of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal, 24,656 persons had returned to the country.  The returnees had received sustainable livelihood aid, whereas State officials who had been victims of the events of 1989 had received compensation.  The State had recognized its responsibility for the events of 1989 and had asked for forgiveness.  The National Commission for Human Rights, which had been created in 2010 in line with the Paris Principles, consisted mostly of representatives of civil society, and it had a separate budget, the head of the delegation concluded.

IRABIHA ABDEL WEDOUD, President of the National Commission for Human Rights of Mauritania, explained that it was an independent, constitutional and advisory body, with A status in line with the Paris Principles.  The Commission had taken part in the drafting of the State party’s report as an observer, and it had been involved in the follow-up to treaty bodies’ concluding observations.  It had carried out awareness raising activities and days on the provisions of the Convention.  To ensure a more effective implementation of the Convention, the Commission had recommended that the Government mobilize development partners and all specialized institutions in the fight against racial discrimination and in the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations; strengthen civic education programmes; implement special measures for vulnerable groups, such as rural women and persons with disabilities; strengthen human rights training for law enforcement forces; and conduct public awareness raising campaigns against racial discrimination.

Questions by the Country Rapporteur

MARC BOSSUYT, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Mauritania, reminded of the long delay in the submission of the current report; it was supposed to be submitted in January 2008.  The Committee had issued its previous concluding observations on the last report of Mauritania in August 2004.  In the meantime, other committees had issued their own concluding observations on Mauritania, namely the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers.  

Mr. Bossuyt reminded that Mauritania was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country, with the majority Arab population, and the Pulaar, Soninké and Wolof minorities.  He recalled that the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism had recommended that the Pulaar, Soninké and Wolof languages be granted the status of official languages.  Arabic was currently the only official language.  

The Country Rapporteur reminded that the Human Rights Committee had asked the State party to withdraw its reservations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on article 18 on the freedom of opinion, and article 23 on the equality of marital spouses, which Mauritania said it would respect only if they were not in contradiction with the Islamic Sharia.  

Mr. Bossuyt regretted the absence of a definition of discrimination in line with the Convention, and he observed that Mauritania had taken special measures only with respect to women, but not with respect to groups which might have been affected by discrimination on the grounds of race, colour of skin, or ethnic origin.  The Haratines (black Moors) were a particularly vulnerable group, suffering from political and economic marginalization.  

Mr. Bossuyt recalled that according to the Global Slavery Index, Mauritania had the highest slavery rate in the world.  Slavery as an institution had been abolished in 1980.  It was important to modify social attitudes with respect to slavery.  Most slaves had been black Moors with white masters.  Following the reform of the constitution in 2012, a law from 2015 treated slavery as a crime against humanity.  Nevertheless, victims of slavery continued to experience difficulties in the exercise of their rights.  It was difficult to punish the authors of the practice of slavery.  

In 2015, the authorities had established specialized tribunals to fight slavery.  In 2016 two slave owners had been condemned by the tribunal of Nema, and another two persons had been condemned for slavery practices by the tribunal of Nouadhibou.  What progress had been made in the implementation of the 2014 Government road map and plan of action to eradicate slavery?

Turning to the repatriation of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal as of 2007, the Country Rapporteur pointed out that the returnees had experienced difficulties in obtaining identity documents.  At the end of November 2014, Mauritania had more than 56,000 refugees and the Human Rights Committee had recommended that the Government adopt a law on refugees.

As for the Citizenship Law, Mr. Bossuyt noted that it treated women and men differently.  It should be reformed to allow Mauritanian women to transfer citizenship to their children.

Questions by Other Experts

GUN KUT, Committee Rapporteur for Follow-up to Concluding Observations, informed that the Committee had not been expecting an interim report from the State party since the previous concluding observations had been issued in 2004.  However, after the current dialogue the Committee would request the Government of Mauritania to submit follow-up on several recommendations within a year.  

Experts pointed out the higher illiteracy among women than men, and school dropout rates among girls in rural areas.  The Government should bolster its efforts to combat multiple discrimination affecting women.  

While commending the establishment of a national agency – TADAMOUN - to eliminate slavery, facilitate repatriation and fight poverty, Experts warned of the segregation of descendants of slaves in towns and villages.  In addition, Mauritania had not ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 on domestic workers.

An Expert observed that it was not sufficient to simply promulgate anti-slavery laws; it was also necessary to change social attitudes and mentalities.  Nevertheless, she welcomed the fact that slavery was nowadays considered a crime against humanity.  She also commended the mushrooming of civil society organizations, and the fact that the majority of them were headed by women.

Turning to anti-discrimination legislation, Experts underlined the need for a specific law against racial discrimination.  They also invited TADAMOUN to think of alternative sources of financing, for example through the taxation of the mining and fishing sector.  

The phenomenon of slavery was more visible in the south of the country, on the border with Mali.  Could the Government cooperate with the authorities of Mali to address that problem?  

As for the repatriation of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal, Experts expressed doubt that they had been resettled in the regions of their origin.  No returnee should lack identity documents, and no child should lack birth certificates.  How did the Government plan to address the problem of land reform, and the fact that some returnees owned no land?  

With respect to female genital mutilation, there should be emphasis on sanctions.  Community leaders should raise awareness about the prohibition of female genital mutilation.  

Who participated in the observation of the national day to commemorate slavery?  Did people treat it as a day off, or did they really learn about the lessons of non-repetition?  How was history taught in schools and how were lessons of anti-slavery included in school curricula?  Would Mauritania conduct a study about slavery, its consequences and remaining challenges?

What would the Government do to encourage school enrolment for children from poor families and those affected by slavery?  Many such children remained at home and were exploited.  How did the State party deal with children out of wedlock?

Experts further inquired about the imprisonment of dissidents under apostasy laws, and about the disappearance of black soldiers.

What was the practice of incorporating international conventions into domestic law?  What was the status of the anti-discrimination bill, which was inconsistent with the Convention?  Which provisions would prevail and which provisions would be invoked in courts?

What was the relationship between the two legal systems in the country, one based on modern justice and the other based on traditional practices?  

Replies by the Delegation

CHEIKH TOURAD OULD ABDEL MALICK, Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Action of Mauritania, explained that the situation in Mauritania had changed a great deal since the country’s previous dialogue with the Committee in 2004, and most of the recommendations made at that time had been implemented.  The Government had implemented recommendations relating to the protection of human rights defenders, the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, the treatment of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal, the criminalization of slavery, implementing socio-economic development programmes, and combatting the consequences of slavery.  

Sadly, the issue of slavery was very often misunderstood abroad.  It was a societal and trans-ethnic phenomenon, intimately linked with the caste system which had prevailed in the country before its independence.  Slavery existed in all ethnic groups in Mauritania.  It was first officially abolished in 1905 under the French colonial rule.  Following independence, there was a massive influx of the population from rural areas to cities, and many people wanted to free themselves from the yoke of slavery.  Slavery was officially abolished by an ordinance in 1980.  It had left economic and social traces, which was why it was important to change mentalities and raise awareness about its consequences, Mr. Abdel Malick noted.

Turning to the question of Mauritanian returnees from Senegal, Mr. Abdel Malick underlined that return was a personal choice.  The Government had made significant progress in humanitarian terms, and it was willing to address the violations committed by the armed forces in 1989-1991.  

As for the late submission of the State party’s report, it was due to institutional reasons, namely the dissolution of the body responsible for reporting to treaty bodies, explained the head of the delegation.  Mauritania had entered a reservation to article 14 of the Convention as had many other countries.

Mr. Abdel Malick stressed that the authorities used Friday prayers to send a message about the necessity to change backward mentalities that could lead to exploitation and slavery-like practices.  The Government had declared 6 March as the national day to combat slavery, and commemorated it in cooperation with international organizations, such as the International Labour Organization.  

As for the cases of imprisoned dissidents (a blogger and a former army colonel), the head of the delegation explained that they were held in good conditions and received visits from their families and lawyers.  The cases were in the hands of the judiciary.  

Answering the question about the ethnic composition of the country, the head of the delegation stressed that the main ethnic groups in the country – the Arabs, Pulaar, Soninké and Wolof - had co-existed peacefully for centuries.

The delegation clarified that the roadmap for the elimination of the consequences of slavery consisted of three main pillars: a legal and institutional framework, social and economic programmes, and changing of mindsets.  Specialized courts had been given the necessary human and financial resources to try cases across the country, whereas about 40 per cent of judges and magistrates had received information about the Law on Slavery.  Three roadmap evaluations had been carried out until the visit by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery in 2017.

As for encouraging entrepreneurship for victims of slavery, the TADAMOUN agency had organized professional training sessions, as well as aid for income generating projects.  Families had been encouraged to enroll children from families affected by slavery in schools through cash transfers.  Mauritania had outlawed child labour, and it was developing a relevant code of conduct for companies.  Community and religious leaders were involved in outreach and awareness rising campaigns aimed at changing attitudes towards slavery-like practices, whereas multimedia programmes were aired to achieve the same goal.  

The definition of discrimination contained in Mauritania’s law was of general scope and it generally conformed with the provisions of the Convention.  The sole source of Mauritania’s law was the Islamic law, with which there could be no contradiction.  At the same time, there could be no contradiction between domestic law and ratified international treaties.  Specialized jurisdictions dealing with the consequences of slavery were pursuing cases across the country.  All Mauritanians could participate in political life without any discrimination.  The National Assembly and the Ministry of Defense were headed by Afro-Mauritanians.
 
The Civil Code stipulated the mandatory birth registration of all children born on the territory of the country.  All returnees had been registered in the biometric data registry and received identity documents.  Returnees settled either in places of their origin, or places of their choice.  There were many types of reintegration programmes for returnees, such as drinking water tanks, distribution of cattle, storage warehouses, mills, wells, tools for fishing, construction of schools and mosques, and vaccination facilities.

In terms of activities to improve the living conditions of returnees, TADAMOUN had built 65 schools, 64 health posts, 41 wells, 14 damns, in addition to providing social housing.  Since Mauritania was mostly a desert country, it had a low population density.  Accordingly, it was difficult for the Government to meet the needs of each village, particularly in terms of the education of girls coming from the most disadvantaged areas.

As for TADAMOUN’s funding, the delegation explained that some 82 per cent of funding for programmes for victims of slavery came from the Government, whereas the rest came from international partners, such as the World Bank.  

Civil society associations had to receive a prior authorization by the Ministry of the Interior.  The Citizenship Law had been amended to allow women to transfer their nationality to their children born abroad on an equal footing with men.

Second Round of Questions by Committee Experts

MARC BOSSUYT, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Mauritania, inquired about the registration process for civil society organizations, noting that some had never received a response from the Ministry of the Interior.  There were obstacles to cooperation between Mauritanian non-governmental organizations and international non-governmental organizations.  

Many of the people who had been victims of the events surrounding the Mauritania-Senegal Border War of 1989-1991 should receive compensation, the Country Rapporteur noted.

Finally, Mr. Bossuyt inquired about the status of the draft Law on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

An Expert agreed that slavery was about mentality and that it needed to be fought through awareness raising campaigns.  However, there was also a need to conduct a study on its nature and consequences.  What kind of access to education did families affected by slavery have?

Another Expert observed that slavery also had a strong socio-economic dimension, which required structural changes to prevent its future resurgence.  Mindsets changed together with changes in economic and social life.  Structural discrimination of descendants of slaves continued, and the State party needed to intensify its efforts to remove the stigma affecting them.

Experts reiterated questions about the prison sentences for the arrested blogger (Ould Mohammed Ould Mkhaitir) who belonged to a lower caste of blacksmiths and had criticized the use of Islam to justify slavery.  He had been imprisoned since 2014.  The arrested former army colonel had spoken about inter-ethnic clashes of November 1990, namely about the summary execution of black Mauritanian officers.

How did Mauritania plan to implement the International Decade for People of African Descent?  Experts urged the State party to incorporate elements of the Decade in its awareness raising campaigns on slavery.  How did the State party ensure that the content of history textbooks was used in the fight against slavery?

Replies by the Delegation

CHEIKH TOURAD OULD ABDEL MALICK, Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Action of Mauritania, reiterated that there were about 5,000 recognized associations in the country.  They had to meet certain conditions in order to be registered, namely be compliant with the basic laws of the country.  The associations of victims of the crimes committed by the armed forces in 1989-1991 had discussed with the authorities their right to truth, justice and memory.  Mr. Abdel Malick stressed that there was the right to truth, adding that the Government would always strive to promote national unity.  

The blogger (Ould Mohammed Ould Mkhaitir) had been arrested because he had committed a serious crime, and not because of his caste.  He had been tried before a court and was currently in administrative detention, pending the final ruling of the Supreme Court.  The retired army colonel had been brought before the courts and his case was under examination.  

The Government was doing its best to combat the consequences of slavery, attitudes and socio-economic causes alike, Mr. Abdel Malick underlined.  The Government would promote the International Decade for People of African Descent.  

The draft Law on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had been passed by the National Assembly, and was pending the President’s signature, explained the delegation.  The authorities aimed to streamline different acts in a single law, in line with the criteria outlined in the Convention.

The delegation clarified that the rate of extreme poverty in Mauritania stood at 10.2 per cent.  Some 57 per cent of school-age children benefited from the programme of cash transfers to attend school.

Concluding Remarks

MARC BOSSUYT, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Mauritania, thanked the delegation for their responses, and commended the genuine efforts taken by the Government to address the consequences of slavery.  It would be in the interest of the Government to cooperate on that matter with civil society.  Mr. Bossuyt expressed hope that the Committee would not have to wait so long for the next report of the State party, and its interim report.

CHEIKH TOURAD OULD ABDEL MALICK, Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Action of Mauritania, stressed the importance of the submission of the State party’s report 14 years since the previous one.  He reiterated the commitment of the Government to pursue a constructive dialogue with the Committee, and to implement its recommendations.  Mauritania had developed a policy of openness and exchange with all human rights mechanisms, as evidenced by its hosting of the sixty-second ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

NOUREDDINE AMIR, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for having shed more light on the situation in Mauritania.  He reminded that the Committee would select several recommendations for immediate follow-up by the State party, and expressed hope that the State party would submit its next periodic report within the stipulated deadline.

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