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Human Rights Committee considers Civil and Political Rights in Mauritania

Human Rights Committee

5 July 2019

The Human Rights Committee concluded today its review of the implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Mauritania.

In his opening remarks, Mohamed Lemine Ould Sidi, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Civil Society Relations of Mauritania, said the report had been prepared by a technical committee in charge of preparing reports, in line with article 40 of the Covenant.  Consultations had been held with all stakeholders, including Parliament, concerned ministerial entities, national human rights institutions and civil society actors.  The Sahel and Sahara regions were facing unprecedented challenges related to development and security, and the Government believed that, in order to overcome them, the rule of law should be robust and stable.  To implement the Covenant, Mauritania had put in place a legal and institutional framework aiming to promote and protect human rights, as outlined in the report.  The Constitution guaranteed equality before the law for all citizens, without any distinction based on origin, race, gender or social status.

Committee Experts underscored that Mauritania was a democracy, and commended it on the progress achieved.  Was the Covenant applied and implemented by courts in the country?  As the State party described itself as an Islamic State, as was its right, Experts pointed out that sometimes there were anomalies between Sharia law and the international human rights protection system, and sometimes Sharia law and the provisions of the Covenant were not aligned, for example regarding freedom of religion or belief.  The fact that Sharia was said to be the “sole source of law” amounted to denying parts of the international human rights protection system.  The apostasy system in Mauritania was in contradiction with article 18 of the Covenant.  The 2018 law said all acts of blasphemy should be punished by the death penalty, and refused a person’s repentance, and this ran counter both to the provisions of the Covenant and of Sharia, which provided a certain level of tolerance and was also nuanced. 

Mr. Ould Sidi said in concluding remarks that written answers would be submitted within 48 hours.  It was clear that regulatory and legislative changes enacted by the Government testified to its willingness to implement the Covenant.  Mauritania strove to promote and protect human rights and would carefully examine the Committee’s recommendations.  He thanked all members of the Committee for their contribution to this dialogue, which had been rich.

Photini Pazartzis, Committee Vice-Chairperson, thanked the delegation and said that the Committee took note of the continued efforts and commitment of the State party to promote and protect human rights, notably those enshrined in the Covenant.  The dialogue, which had been fruitful and constructive, had dealt with both the progress achieved and the remaining challenges.

The delegation of Mauritania consisted of representatives of the Commission on Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization, the Ministry of the Civil Service, Labour, and Modernization of the Administration, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Childhood and the Family, the Ministry of Justice, the Judicial Police, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, the Tadamoun National Agency, and the Permanent Mission of Mauritania to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

Documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage .

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/ .

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 July, to consider the second report of Paraguay (CCPR/C/PRY/4 ). 

Report

The Committee has before it the second periodic report of Mauritania (CCPR/C/MRT/2 )

Presentation of the Report

MOHAMED LEMINE OULD SIDI, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Civil Society Relations of Mauritania, said the report had been prepared by a technical committee in charge of preparing reports, in line with article 40 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  Consultations had been held with all stakeholders, including Parliament, concerned ministerial entities, national human rights institutions and civil society actors.  The Sahel and Sahara regions were facing unprecedented challenges related to development and security, and the Government of Mauritania believed that, in order to overcome them, the rule of law should be robust and stable.  To implement the Covenant, Mauritania had put in place a legal and institutional framework aiming to promote and protect human rights, as outlined in the report.  The Constitution guaranteed equality before the law for all citizens, without any distinction based on origin, race, gender or social status.  All forms of violence, be it psychological or physical, was prohibited, as per the legislation on torture, the national police, and the penal code.  This legal framework had been reinforced through the creation of a national mechanism on torture prevention.  The Government monitored places of detention and sought to improve inmates’ detention conditions, notably as they pertained to hygiene, food and leisure.

The right to information was guaranteed for all.  Good governance and the fight against corruption were pillars of the Government’s programmes.  Mauritania had ratified the United Nations’ and the African Union’s conventions on corruption.  Civil society played an important role in the fight against corruption.  As a State party to the Covenant, Mauritania had committed to the implementation of the recommendations stemming from the first report, which had been submitted in 2013.  Legal documents enshrined the prohibition of all forms of discrimination, and, to foster national cohesion, it was forbidden for any political parties to identify with a race, ethnic origin, religion, tribe, gender or fraternity.  A national institute, linked to a university, had been created to promote writing and teaching in national languages.  The law penalizing torture used the definition of torture outlined in the Covenant and stipulated that this crime was not subject to statutes of limitation.  A law on legal aid had been adopted, and another organic law had set up the composition and mode of operation of the national human rights commission, strengthening its independence.  The Government reaffirmed its commitment to human rights ideals, principles and values, as well as to their promotion and protection.

Questions by Committee Experts

Committee Experts underscored that Mauritania was a democracy, and commended it on the progress achieved.  They encouraged Mauritania to take its democracy commitments to their logical conclusions.  Was the Covenant applied and implemented by courts in the country and could examples be cited?  As the State party described itself as an Islamic State, as was its right, Experts pointed out that sometimes there were anomalies between Sharia law and the international human rights protection system, and sometimes Sharia law and the provisions of the Covenant were not aligned, for example regarding freedom of religion or belief.  The fact that Sharia was said to be the “sole source of law” amounted to denying parts of the international human rights protection system.  There was increased Islamization in the Mauritanian society.  The apostasy system in Mauritania was in contradiction with article 18 of the Covenant.  The 2018 law said all acts of blasphemy should be punished by the death penalty, and refused a person’s repentance, and this ran counter both to the provisions of the Covenant and of Sharia, which provided a certain level of tolerance and was also nuanced.  Experts expressed concerns about the prohibition of abortion, which ran counter to the Covenant and general comments recently adopted.  Sharia religious doctrine allowed abortion in certain circumstances, for up to three-month pregnancies.  On the national human rights commission, Experts underlined that its status had been downgraded.  What measures had been taken to regain the A status?  Were the necessary safeguards in place?

Regarding the amnesty law, Experts asked why parliamentarians could not repeal it.  Did the law on discrimination address both direct and indirect discrimination?  They asked about the definition of “incitement to hatred” use in Mauritanian legislation, including in the law on cybercrimes.  They requested more detailed information on the data on discrimination and on the training on discrimination offered to members of the judiciary.  What measures were being taken to combat de facto discrimination against Black Africans and Haratins?  On the death penalty, noting that it should only be applied for the most serious crimes, Experts asked what steps would be taken to align legislation with the Covenant.  Several non-governmental organizations had made allegations during the Universal Periodic Review that related to enforced disappearances.  Could the delegation comment on these allegations?

The Mauritanian criminal code criminalized homosexuality, and provided that it be punished with the death penalty, and this was against the State party’s obligations under the Covenant.  The State party also had an obligation to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  What steps was the Government taking to protect them from discrimination.  What measures had been taken to improve the situation of Haratin and Black African women, who were excluded from access to public affairs on the basis of their gender and ethnic origin?  The Experts requested information on death penalty sentences, as there seemed to be an upward trend.  It seemed that the reform of the penal code would restrict the application of article 6 of the Covenant.  What legal safeguards were in place to protect individuals involved in legal proceedings that could lead to a death penalty sentence?  In other words, in such cases, how was compliance with article 14 of the Covenant ensured?

On gender issues, Committee Experts asked if adequate training for public officials, as well as awareness-raising campaigns targeting the public, had been put in place.  Could the delegation comment on the discrepancies on nationality transmission that were based on the Mauritanian parent’s gender?  What was the status of the bill that had been presented to Parliament in 2016 and subsequently rejected three times?  They enquired about the programmes put in place to combat gender-based violence and the scope of the territory they covered; the support and care provided to victims; the training offered to judges, and healthcare professionals; and situations in which women who had been victims of rape were not able to prove that they had not been consenting.  How did the State party intend to address the root causes of early marriage, including slavery and illiteracy?  What was the status of the draft bill which aimed to ban this practice?

The Experts requested statistics on the number of members of the military who had received training on human rights and details on future plans to train law enforcement officials, as well as data on maternity-related deaths.  Did the Government intend to amend the penal code to harmonize it with the law on sexual and reproductive health that was adopted in 2018, and which allowed abortions?

Replies by the Delegation

In line with the Constitution, treaties that had been ratified by Mauritania and published in the official gazette took precedence over domestic laws.  On apostasy, it was an issue of sovereignty, and Mauritania was an Islamic country.  Islam was the religion of the people and the State.  Provisions on sacrilege concerned the prophet and the holy book in particular.  A person who had been accused of apostasy could repent before a sentence was handed down.  Since 2007, there had been no implementation of the death penalty.  There were guarantees for safe trials, and safeguards were in place for all defendants.  A twofold degree of jurisdiction applied to all criminal matters.  Of all the 115 persons sentenced to death, 90 had been subject to a definitive decision.  The right of defence for these individuals was guaranteed, and the investigative judge appointed an ex-officio lawyer when necessary.  Progress had been made in this regard thanks to the distribution of lawyers which had greatly improved.  All 115 persons sentenced to death had been convicted of committing murder.

On nationality and gender equality, Mauritanian law did not accept dual nationality, apart from very specific cases.  The acquisition of Mauritanian nationality was done under the same conditions for men and women.  On the Mangane case, there had been a preliminary investigation prior to its referral to the Attorney General who had decided on the steps forward, in line with Mauritanian law.  The case of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir had to be placed in the cultural and national context.  The population was shocked by his comments on the prophet.  Nevertheless, he received appropriate legal aid, and all of the benefits granted by the dual jurisdiction.  He had served a two-year sentence.  The problem in his case was not a problem of conviction but rather one related to safety.  In light of the prevailing situation, he had not been abducted or kidnapped but rather was being held in administrative detention.  He was not in prison.  He was benefitting from a situation protecting his safety and security.  Had he not been subjected to threats, he would have been released.  He was safe and held in standard conditions.  The State had to guarantee the safety of all citizens.

There was a link between the training of the judicial police and the way in which proceedings operated, the delegation said.  That was why a training plan was in place.  Public order and public freedoms went hand in hand; they were interdependent.  Mauritania had ratified a majority of international conventions related to human rights and accordingly the training included various modules on topics such as asylum rights and refugees.  In that context, the Mauritanian Academy for Peace and Security had been established last year.  In addition to security-related issues, the training also touched on development.  Mauritania was open to training to promote public freedoms and international conventions that contributed to stability in order to achieve development, peace, security and respect for human rights.  On gender-based violence, the legal regime that informed preliminary investigations was flexible.  Support was provided to victims. 

On child marriages, the delegation recalled that Mauritania had ratified numerous human rights conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the provisions of which prohibited the mistreatment of children.  The Government had promulgated acts establishing programmes encouraging girls to follow studies through prize giving, and encouraging them to continue studying beyond high school.  The State had launched in 2015 a campaign against early and child marriage and had established a multi-sectoral committee to combat this practice, which had drawn up a plan of action tackling this issue.  There had also been broadcasts on local radio and television stations.  Awareness-raising activities had been rolled-out.  Turning to female genital mutilation, the delegation said it had taken several measures to ensure that the public understood that it amounted to a serious violation of human rights, following efforts in partnership with United Nations entities and grass-root organizations.  Thanks to awareness-raising efforts, the prevalence of this practice had gone down.  Many religious leaders had been trained, numerous events had been organized, and several community statements had been published as part of efforts to combat female genital mutilation.  Further, regional committees, a national gender institute and other independent entities had been set up.

Questions by Committee Experts

Committee Experts said the law about nationality transmission should be the same for women and men.  On the Mangane case, they noted that the Attorney General had shelved the case, and asked the delegation to comment how this decision complied with the principles of equality. 

It was quite shocking that Mr. Mkhaitir was in administrative detention, and that this detention may continue indefinitely.  The State party had made significant strides forward to combat gender-based violence and female genital mutilation, and yet, half of the girls in the country were still subjected to genital mutilation. 
Further, some girls who had been victims of rape were prosecuted for having committed adultery.

Experts stressed that Sharia law was not rigid.  It should evolve.  Mauritania should follow the liberal interpretation of Sharia law that went in the same direction as the Covenant.  Issues related to apostasy, for instance, should be re-examined accordingly.  Saying that the release of Mr. Mkhaitir would pose a threat to public order would constitute a more robust justification for his detention.

The death penalty could only be provided for the most serious crimes according to the Covenant.  Was there a plan to amend the legislation correspondingly?  The delegation had not replied to questions about the criminalization of homosexuality, Experts underlined.  They requested statistical information related to efforts to improve women’s representation in the management of public affairs.  Experts repeated their questions about the discrepancies between the law on abortion adopted in 2018 and the penal code.  What was the Government doing to improve the way in which it dealt with maternal health issues?  Did the Government intend to cover all forms of discrimination mentioned in the Covenant by putting in place reforms?  Under what circumstances would women and girls be allowed to have an abortion as per the recently adopted law?

Responses by the Delegation

A draft bill on changes to the nationality code was underway, the delegation explained.  The criminalization of rape was punishable in accordance with the criminal code.  The latest commutation of the death penalty took place in 2016, and two persons sentenced to death in 2019 had benefitted from a pardon.  Homosexual acts ran counter to Mauritania’s law and culture.  Therapeutic abortion could be authorized in cases where continuing the pregnancy could endanger the mother’s life.  The anti-discrimination law criminalized the spread of hate speech through electronic communications channels. 

When it ratified the Covenant, Mauritania had expressed reservations concerning article 18.  The third paragraph of the Constitution stipulated that Islam was the only source of law.  Islam was the religion of the people and the State of Mauritania, but foreigners could practice other religions in the country without any hindrance.  The Government had undertaken significant reforms aiming to foster the empowerment and political participation of women.  Women accounted for 36 per cent of the Government.  Over 300 elected women had been provided with training, kindergartens had been opened, a national gender strategy had been adopted, a gender sectoral initiative had been put in place, and a national rural women’s action plan had been implemented.  The draft bill on gender violence had been adopted by the Government and sent to Parliament.  It had subsequently been withdrawn to allow further consultations.   A national health plan prepared by the Government sought to strengthen the health system and provide funding to achieve universal coverage. 

Follow-Up Questions by Committee Experts

Committee Experts took due note on the information provided on the fight against gender-based violence.  Could the delegation provide information about the support provided to victims?  Whenever there were reasonable grounds to believe acts of torture had been carried out, the judiciary should be able to carry out an investigation.  It seemed that torture was still being used in the country.  Some law enforcement officials appeared to use it, especially during or following protests.  People had been forced to sign procès-verbal without having read them, victims were sometimes prevented from accessing legal counsel, and courts sometimes ignored complaints about the use of torture to exact confessions.  Could the State party provide examples of instances where violations of the rights of persons held in custody had been punished, as well as examples of detainees successfully invoking the habeas corpus to challenge their detention? 

Experts asked if the registration of all detainees was implemented in practice?  On the period of custody, could the State party provide information on the monitoring function of the prosecutor’s office?  They asked about the number of terrorism-related cases that were currently before the courts.  Secret detention was prohibited by law.  And yet, there were reports of detainees being held incommunicado.  Could the delegation comment on these reports?  What measures were in place to prevent pre-trial detentions exceeding the time limit?  How many minors were held in per-trial detention?

Since 2015, there had been some progress in legislation that had positively contributed to efforts to combat torture.  Experts requested statistics on the number of lodged complaints and their outcomes.  How many had led to criminal convictions and compensation for victims and their families?  One did not torture a woman in the same way as one tortured a man, Experts said.  Did the torture-related outreach programme take into consideration gender issues?  They asked for information on the organization of judges’ tenures; victims of torture’s access to lawyers; the safeguards in place to prevent the mistreatment of human rights defenders and activists in the context of demonstrations; and measures put in place by the Government to ensure the freedom of the press.

Experts noted that there was no explicit prohibition of corporal punishment, including the kind meted out against children at home.  Corporal punishment could also be used as a sentence for a crime.  Some in the country considered it a normal practice that was in line with tradition.  How did the Government intend to address these issues?  On the specific situation of the Darn Naim prison, how was the Government addressing overcrowding problems?  Experts sought clarification regarding the practice of separating minors from adults and using rented houses as prisons.  They asked the delegation to comment on reports of refoulement taking place at the border with Senegal and the causes of statelessness in Mauritania.  Turning to elections, they asked the delegation to provide information on the participation of opposition parties in the counting process, and the impact of the vote-related identification process on the participation of Black Africans and Haratins.

When reading about slavery in Mauritania, one could think that the country was a hotbed of slavery.  And yet, there were measures in place to address this issue.  The problem was the lack of official statistics on the issue, which resulted in people saying all kinds of things, Experts said.  The lack of specific and reliable information on slavery was the core of the problem, they emphasized.  Access to employment and land issues also undermined the efficacy of legislation.  In some of the tables included in the State party’s report, slavery and trafficking seemed to be conflated.  Mauritania really ought to decriminalize apostasy to ensure compliance with its obligations under international law.

Did the laws on hate speech include a definition that was in line with article 20 of the Covenant?  Committee Experts asked the delegation for clarification on data on the country’s ethnic makeup.  In the absence of disaggregated data on different minorities, how could the anti-discrimination policies be efficient?  What kind of data did the Government use to draw up such policies?  The State party had made a clear assertion that reports of torture and ill-treatment involving the police and the gendarmerie “were unfounded”.  Could it elaborate on the reasons warranting such an adamant denial?

Replies by the Delegation

On the application of the law on torture, the delegation assured that the Government had implemented all the relevant provisions of the Convention and that the right to have access to a lawyer was always respected.  In one case, the defendant’s complaint that he had been subjected to torture had led the appellate court to order an inquiry, and a report had subsequently been produced

Custody was limited to 48 hours, a period which could be extended.  This did not apply to cases related to terrorism and public safety, for which a specific legal framework was applied.  There was a logbook where all the data regarding persons deprived of their liberty was entered.  The Public Prosecutor had an obligation to ensure that these registers were kept up to date.  The delegation was not aware of any secret detentions, other than the one mentioned yesterday.  Pre-trial detention was a last resort, apart from certain specific situations.  As of last week, there were 53 children held in pre-trial detention.  On that issue, judges never gave favour to imprisonment and tried to give preference to alternative sentences, as children needed to enjoy sufficient safeguards in terms of care within a family, etc.  On the independence of the judiciary, the substantive and practical work was governed by strict rules.  Courts had to meet demands and efforts were being made to ensure that all the posts were filled.  The law that regulated anti-terrorism efforts had national jurisdiction.  A lawyer was easily appointed for those charged as the court was based in Nouakchott, where there were numerous legal practitioners.  All those charged in relation to this law were held in Nouakchott.

The rehabilitation of Darn Naim prison had been postponed because a solution to “unclog” the facility had yet to be found.  It would be adequately equipped and all measures had been taken to rehabilitate it.  Now, detainees had to be transferred for the rehabilitation to start.  Only a few houses had been rented for detention -- there were about seven, mainly whenever a court ordered that the expulsion of an asylum-seeker or refugee was suspended until a shelter could be found where the individual would not be at risk of torture.

All children in Mauritania born of unknown parents were automatically granted Mauritanian nationality.  On the lack of judicial proceedings related to slavery cases, the delegation assured that the justice apparatus used all means to address slavery, including the possibility for civil society organizations to play a role, such as initiating the legal proceedings on behalf of victims.  The statistics provided in the report related to all cases dealt with by the courts.  Any evidence obtained through torture was devoid of value in Mauritania.  There was a case at the appeal’s court in which the judge explicitly discarded the proof, refusing to use it, for that reason.

A bill had been adopted to ensure compliance with international conventions regarding refugee status and asylum petitions.  A person with refugee status could only be expelled if national security was threatened.  There were safeguards in place and asylum seekers and refugees could be assisted by a lawyer.  The expulsion could only take place if all appeals procedures had been exhausted. Mauritania was made up of several ethnic groups and therefore it was not allowed for an association to be solely comprised of members of one ethnic group.  There was a draft bill that had been around for some time which dealt with associations, seeking to relax regulations.

Observers had noted that the damage caused in relation to demonstrations was not as important in Mauritania as it had been in other parts of the world.  This showed that Mauritania had struck a balance between public order imperatives and respect for demonstrators’ civil freedoms.  Various demonstrations recently had been authorized and had taken place with security forces present.  As far as the delegation was aware, and while things were not perfect, there had been no significant problems.  What was more, security forces from other countries had contacted law enforcement officials in Mauritania to find out what the secret to their achievements was.

Consultations were underway to determine the best way to revise the legislation related to the code of personal status.  A consultant had been hired to assist with these efforts.  Any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of children that could harm their physical or mental well-being was prohibited by law, even for disciplinary reasons.

Questions by Committee Experts

Recalling that answers could be submitted in writing within 48 hours, Experts asked the delegation to provide further information on access to lawyers for individuals charged in relation to the law on terrorism; record keepings related to detention; the detention of individuals over weekends; traditional practices in some communities that amounted to corporal punishment of children; the detention of minors with adults due to their family ties; statistics on the training of members of the judiciary; and efforts to combat slavery.

Concluding Remarks

MOHAMED LEMINE OULD SIDI, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Civil Society Relations of Mauritania, said written answers would be submitted within 48 hours.  It was clear that regulatory and legislative changes enacted by the Government testified to its willingness to implement the Covenant.  Mauritania strove to promote and protect human rights and would carefully examine the Committee’s recommendations.  He thanked all members of the Committee for their contribution to this dialogue, which had been rich.

PHOTINI PAZARTZIS, Committee Vice-Chairperson, thanked the delegation and said that the Committee took note of the continued efforts and commitment of the State party to promote and protect human rights, notably those enshrined in the Covenant.  The dialogue, which had been fruitful and constructive, had dealt with both the progress achieved and the remaining challenges.

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