Child Labour in Mauritania
The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child considered a communication concerning child slavery and held Mauritania accountable for multiple violations of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The Committee is an African Union body set up to protect children’s rights across the region.
Said Ould Salem and his younger brother, Yarg Ould Salem, were born to a Haratine mother, part of Mauritania’s former slave class. While slavery is now outlawed in Mauritania, the practice remains widespread, commonly victimizing members of the Haratine minority. From birth onwards, both brothers became slaves to the El Hassine family. The two children worked seven days a week without rest, including on Fridays. They regularly faced corporal punishment and were only referred to as ‘slaves.’ Neither brother attended school or was taught the Quran. The brothers escaped in 2011, and Said went to the police with their aunt. The aunt filed a police complaint in April of 2011 against Ahmed Ould El Hassine and his brothers. Charges were brought under the 2007 Slavery Act. While multiple individuals were prosecuted, the court gave them very lenient sentences.
Minority Group International and SOS-Esclaves brought this case on behalf of Said and Yarg before the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (Committee) on 15 December 2015. The petitioners alleged that the Republic of Mauritania was in violation of articles 1 (Obligation of State Parties), 3 (Non-discrimination), 4 (Best Interests of the Child), 5 (Survival and Development), 11 (Education), 12 (Leisure, Recreation and Cultural Activities), 15 (Child Labor), 16 (Protection Against Child Abuse and Torture), 21 (Protection Against Harmful Social and Cultural Practices), and 29 (Prevention of Sale, Trafficking and Abduction of Children) of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (Charter)). The Committee considered this case admissible due to undue delay in the criminal process and a lack of effective and sufficient remedies, among other factors.
After hearing both sides and conducting an in-country investigation, the Committee delivered its decision on 15 December 2017. It found that although Mauritania has legislation criminalizing slavery, the state has not implemented the legislation across all its entities, and the legislation itself does not provide adequate protection against slavery in practice. The Committee condemned Mauritania’s failure to take adequate steps to prevent, investigate, prosecute, punish and remedy the practice of slavery, which had resulted in a situation of impunity. The Committee ruled in near complete agreement with the complainants, finding that Mauritania violated its obligations under articles 1, 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, 15, 16, and 21.
It is noteworthy that the Committee extensively referenced international and regional jurisprudence, including from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Furthermore, the Committee emphasized the interrelatedness and interdependence of all rights (civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural). For example, the Committee noted how illegal child labor (a Charter violation) also leads to the violation of several other Charter rights, such as the right to health, the right to movement and access to a fair trial. In another instance, the Committee recognized that the right to survival and development can only be realized through the implementation of all Charter rights, including the rights to health, education, protection from torture and freedom from illegal child labor. In other words, the fulfillment of children’s right to life, survival, and development goes beyond mere survival; it includes state investment in all aspects of growth and development, including physical, mental, psychological, social, etc.
The Committee issued several recommendations, calling on the Republic of Mauritania to, among other measures,
- properly prosecute and sentence all members of the El Hassine family for the enslavement of Said and Yarg, as mandated by Mauritanian law and Charter rights;
- ensure that the brothers and other victims of slavery are given adequate remedies in the form of necessary identification documents, enrollment in public schools, psychological support, and compensation; and
- ensure that all state bodies, civil society, and other stakeholders collaborate to confront slavery or slavery-like practices as a matter of priority.
The government of Mauritania was asked to report back to the Committee on all measures taken to implement the decision within 180 days from the date of receipt of the Committee’s decision. As of this writing, the government has not reported back to the Committee.
Also, the Supreme Court of Mauritania had not taken into account the Committee’s decision and had affirmed the lower court decisions granting very lenient sentences to those prosecuted for the enslavement of Said and Yarg.
MRG plans to attend the upcoming Committee session in October 2018 to engage in implementation-related advocacy. Moreover, MRG will disseminate the decision amongst the local populace, and hold discussions with community leaders to create awareness of the rights upheld by the judgment. (Interview with MRG representative, 25 July 2018).
Minority Rights Group International
This landmark decision has the potential to bring positive change for Said and Yarg as well as thousands of other child victims of slavery in Mauritania.
The prohibition against slavery is one of the clearest dictates of human rights. Nevertheless, the ILO estimates there to be 40 million slaves across the world today. Of these, approximately 5.5 million are children. This data represents a clear indictment of the ineffective implementation of human rights law. The Committee’s ruling is particularly important because it emphasizes that states are not merely responsible for providing formal legal protection. In addition, states must ensure effective implementation of laws that safeguard human rights. Bridging the gap between norms and practice is essential to fulfilling the transformative promise of human rights.
The Committee case followed the first successful domestic prosecution of individuals under the 2007 Act in Mauritania. While the sentencing and judicial process at the domestic level were inadequate, commentators hope that the regional decision will influence anti-slavery cases in the country and beyond. Indeed, as a MRG briefing reports, in the months following the Committee’s ruling two individuals were sentenced to 10 and 20 years respectively for slavery offenses in another case. To date, these are the strongest sentences ever imposed for the crime of slavery in Mauritania.
The Committee’s decision illustrates issues of multiple or intersectional discrimination. Although the subject of intersectionality is not addressed expressly in the decision, the ruling brings to light how discrimination is experienced more severely or in a unique way due to overlapping factors, including poverty, age and ethnicity (the boys belonged to the Haratine ethnic group, who, as noted above, have historically been victims of slavery in Mauritania). This case, especially given the structural remedies it provides, represents a critical step forward towards eradicating the pervasive practice of child slavery in Mauritania, and one hopes, across jurisdictions.
For their contributions, special thanks to ESCR-Net members: Dullah Omar Institute, Minority Rights Group International and Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.