Slavery in Mauritania is NOT an invitation for US-backed intervention
Excellent to see CNN publish this detailed and in-depth report on modern-day slavery in Mauritania, researched covertly during a visit there in December 2011. But the extract below, from the end of the report invites a dangerous assumption: it could be interpreted as an excuse to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign nation. I believe this is not the right attitude at all. Pay attention, shine a light on injustice, give it airtime or column inches, raise the issues in international discussions, provide funding to appropriate non-government organisations created and staffed by local activists, but please, don’t assume that it is any other country’s responsibility to interfere.
“Help us to change our country”
Activists say the international community has done relatively little to pressure Mauritania to address slavery. “The French government and American government have had a lot of opportunities to help Mauritania step up and deal with this — and have pretty much squandered those opportunities,” says Kevin Bales, of Free the Slaves. People tend to focus on topics like child trafficking and sex slavery, says Sarah Mathewson, Africa program coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, rather than the old-world slavery in Mauritania.
The U.S. ambassador to Mauritania, Jo Ellen Powell, called slavery in the country “completely unacceptable and abhorrent” and said America is pressuring Mauritania to change. The nation should invest in the education of its children rather than “keeping them sweeping floors somewhere or herding goats,” she said. “Human capital development is something that’s very important to the Mauritanians and I hope that they get that connection.”
For a few weeks after returning home, I tried to block the most troubling images from my mind: haunting villages where kids eat sand; a slave owner who smiled while he told us about the free labor he gets from people with darker skin; and, most of all, the piercing eyes of a woman whose master left her infant in the sand to die.
Mauritania is a place of agonizing beauty, one that’s hard not to love and curse. Its people have lived with unfulfilled potential and broken promises for decades, since the country first tried to abolish slavery in 1905. But that could change, several activists told us, if Mauritania knew the rest of the world was watching.
The United Nations has proposed a number of changes the Mauritanian government could make to quicken the end of slavery. Among them: Pay lawyers to represent victims; allow international monitors into the country to conduct a full survey of slavery; and fund centers like the one SOS runs to rehabilitate slaves who have claimed their freedom.
It would help if a global public demanded these changes. “It’s a destitute country,” says Kevin Bales. “It needs a few friends in the world.”
Perhaps then women like Moulkheir and Selek’ha could find justice.
And Boubacar and Abdel could get their wish.
We asked the SOS founders how they will know when their fight against slavery in Mauritania is over — how they’ll know they have won. Both men had the same answer:
When a former slave becomes president.