The friends of Mauritania, mostly Islamic states, who spoke in an hour-long debate in the Human Rights Council Friday, 18 March 2011, would have us believe that this vast but under-populated West-African desert state was a model in its efforts to comply with international human rights law.

No western delegation spoke in the debate and none of the Islamic states made any reference to slavery with the exception of Morocco—who actually congratulated Mauritania on its elimination! It was left to four  NGOs (non-governmental organizations), including the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), to set the record straight.

The occasion was the debate on the Universal Periodic Review of Mauritania’s human rights record, a review which every member state of the UN is required to undergo every three years.

In a two-minute speech IHEU representative Roy Brown attacked the continuing enslavement of some 18% of the Mauritania’s population, and its failure to remove the death penalty for homosexuals from its penal code.

The government minister on the dais and other Mauritanian delegates from the floor spent ten minutes attempting, not at all convincingly, to counter IHEU’s arguments.

Here is Roy’s speech in full, and below a summary of Mauritania’s reply.  

UN Human Rights Council: Friday 18 March 2011

Agenda Item 6: UPR Report on Mauritania

Speaker: IHEU Representative, Roy W Brown

Slavery and the Death Penalty in Mauritania

Mr President,

We welcome the acceptance by Mauritania of 88 of the 139 recommendations and their claim that 24 have already been implemented or are in progress. Yet it is clear that despite the law of 2007 there has been little real progress regarding slavery and slavery-like practices.

Mr President, the culture of slavery in Mauritania has deep racial and cultural roots, with an estimated 18% of the population held in slavery or slavery-like conditions. Most, if not all, are descendants of black Africans abducted into slavery, the haratin. Many face daily beatings and rape; and most of them are brainwashed into believing that disobeying their masters will deny them entry into paradise.

Yet it is clear from paragraph 50 of the UPR report [A/HRC/16/17] that the government is in denial. We have heard suggestions that since slavery was abolished by law what we are now seeing is a post-slavery phenomenon. We wonder, Mr President, how the slaves can tell the difference?

Merely changing the law–or worse–attempting to redefine the phenomenon–will do nothing to help these people without serious attempts to implement the law, and the introduction of a system of compensation for victims.

We are also dismayed by Mauritania’s rejection of the recommendations regarding homosexuality and the death penalty. We urge the government to reconsider its refusal to remove the provisions in the penal code that permit the death penalty for homosexuality, and to ensure that the death penalty is not applied to consensual same-sex relations between adults.

We urge the government of Mauritania, particularly as a member state of this Council, to take a far more pro-active role in educating all levels of societyin basic human rights and in their responsibilities under international law. .

Thank you, sir.

Reply from Mauritania

There have been no executions in Mauritania for the past 17 years. There has been de-facto abolition.

They have no intention of lifting the restrictions on homosexuality.

Legislation is in place to bring all Mauritania’s legislation into line with the international norms that Mauritania has ratified.

Programs on the abolition of slavery are now in place.

For Mauritania slavery is a structural issue and it cannot be resolved by the government. But they can accelerate the program of social transformation, raising the status of people who were slaves. Many phenomena are psychological–an issue for the former slaves themselves, and of resources, education and health care. Here the state has initiated a program aimed at eliminating the consequences of slavery. And Mauritania has signed up to all of the International covenants relating to women and children

[Oh, and in case you were beginning to think that they weren’t so bad after all …] The country was not yet a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, and the Government did not plan to lift the reservation to the ICCPR regarding freedom of belief and freedom of expression.

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