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Niger: UN rights expert hails criminalisation of slavery, but urges stronger law enforcement

Eradicating slavery in Niger

21 November 2014

NIAMEY (21 November 2014) – The Government of Niger has taken significant steps toward eradicating slavery and slavery-like practices but many challenges remain, United Nations Special Rapporteur Urmila Bhoola said today at the end of her first official visit to the country.

Niger criminalized slavery in 2003, giving effect to the constitutional right not to be subjected to slavery. It has also adopted in 2010 a law to prevent and fight human trafficking, including trafficking for slavery and slavery-like practices, which led to the creation of the National Coordination Commission and National Agency for Combatting Human Trafficking in 2012. In July 2014 a National Action Plan on Combatting Human Trafficking was adopted. Niger also amended the Labour Code to prohibit forced labour and worst forms of child labour.

“The criminalisation of slavery and adoption of legislation penalising contemporary forms of slavery is an indication of the government’s commitment to comply with its international human rights obligations,” she noted. However, the limited number of prosecutions indicates that stronger law enforcement is necessary and that resource and capacity constraints still exist.  

“Civil society organisations with the mandate to fight against slavery can initiate prosecutions under the Criminal Code,” noted Ms. Bhoola, whose mandate is to monitor and report to the Human Rights Council on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences in all countries. In 2014 a man was convicted for the crime of slavery for the wahaya practice. The wahaya is also known as the ‘the fifth wife’ phenomenon because it entails the purchase of a woman or a girl as a slave under the guise of “marriage”.

Another slavery-like practice, which the Special Rapporteur was told has yet to result in a conviction, is talibés being forced to beg by some Koranic teachers. Talibés are boys sent to Koranic teachers – marabouts – to receive religious education, but exploited by certain marabouts to earn an income for them. There appears to be reluctance to denounce this practice despite its prevalence and clear prohibition in the legislation.

“Although customary law is superseded by civil law where the two conflict, in many instances customary law or practice is allowed to prevail”. This should be addressed through continued training of judicial and law enforcement officers as well as sustainable public awareness campaigns. “The rule of law should not be undermined by the failure to condemn social customs, including those that reinforce stigmatisation and discrimination against people who are considered to be of slave descent, especially with regard to land ownership,” Ms. Bhoola said.

The Special Rapporteur was also concerned about the reported increase in child marriages, which can result in child slavery, as well as the prevalence of worst forms of child labour and domestic servitude.

The Special Rapporteur warned that poverty eradication was an urgent priority as it was a key push factor leading people into contemporary forms of slavery. “The root causes need to be addressed if substantial progress is to be made,” said Ms. Bhoola. Given the high prevalence of poverty in Niger -ranked last in the 2014 Human Development Index-, she urged the authorities to include a human rights and gender based perspectives in poverty reduction and development programmes and strategies as well as taking into account the specific situation of those most vulnerable, including people of slave descent.

She also noted the lack of data as to the persistence of slavery and slavery-like practices in Niger and recommended that a study of prevalence be conducted in order to be able to develop targeted programmes aimed at eradicating specific practices. The Special Rapporteur was pleased to note that the National Action Plan on Combatting Human Trafficking foresees a study on trafficking and called for its scope to be broadened to cover all contemporary forms of slavery as well as vestiges of traditional slavery.

The expert emphasised that education and socio-economic empowerment of people of slave descent should be a priority for the government. “I am aware of the plans to establish a special compensation fund for victims of trafficking, but would urge the government to consider similar support to all victims of slavery and slavery-like practices in order to ensure their economic autonomy and reintegration into society,” she said.

During her eleven-day visit to Niger, Ms. Bhoola met with various stakeholders, including representatives of the executive, legislative and judiciary, as well as traditional and religious leaders and civil society organisations, and visited villages of people of slave descent and other communities in the regions of Tillabéry and Tahoua.

The Special Rapporteur will present a report with her findings and recommendations at a forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2015.

Urmila Bhoola (South Africa) assumed her mandate as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences on 2 June 2014. Ms. Bhoola is a human rights lawyer working in the Asia Pacific region on international human rights, gender equality and labour law. She has 20 years of experience as a labour and human rights lawyer in South Africa and served as a Judge of the South African Labour Court for five years. Learn more, log on to:

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