Mauritania, US in spat over ‘slavery’ charge
MAURITANIA reacted furiously on Monday after the US pulled its status as a preferential trade partner, accusing the West African state of tolerating forced labour and hereditary slavery.
The decision, made by Washington last Friday, will terminate Mauritania’s eligibility for trade preference starting January 1.
Mauritanian government spokesman Mohamed Ould Maham lashed the move Monday on Twitter, calling it “a betrayal of the friendly relations between our countries and a denial of our efforts” to roll back slavery practices.
He pointed to President Donald Trump’s posture towards Saudi Arabia, implying that Riyadh – under fire over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi – got soft treatment because of its purchases of US weapons.
“Would Trump have taken this decision if he was expecting a $110 billion arms contract with us?” he asked rhetorically.
The US sa id t he decision wa s ba se d on a n a n nua l rev iew of eligibilit y under t he African Grow t h and Opport u nit y Act, which requ i res African countries to improve rule of law and uphold respect for human rights and labour standards.
“Mauritania has made insufficient progress toward combating forced labour, in par- t i c u l a r t h e s c ou r g e of heredita r y slaver y,” t he US Trade Representative said in a statement.
“In addition, the government of Mauritania continues to restrict the ability of civil society to work freely to address anti-slavery issues.”
Remnants of traditional slavery have become a major issue in Mauritania, an i mpoverished, deeply conservative and predominantly Muslim state.
Under a generations-old system of servitude, members of a “slave” caste are forced to work without pay, typically as cattle herders and domestic servants.
Slaver y was officially abolished in 1981. In 2015, parlia- ment made slaver y “a crime against humanity” punishable by prison terms of up to 20 years, compared with five to 10 years previously.
No official figures exist for those still enslaved, but some NGOs est imate t hat up to 43,000 people remained i n bondage in 2016, accounting for around one per cent of the population. Hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians are the descendants of slaves.
Activists say the country has made little headway towards er ad ic at i ng t he problem, although specialised courts set up in 2015 have notably come down harder on offenders this year.
In March, a court in the Atlantic port of Nouadhibou sentenced a father and his son to 20 years in prison for enslaving a family of four. A woman was jailed for 10 years for doing the same to three sisters.
In April, t he court i n t he coasta l capita l Nouakchott gave three men the maximum sentence of a year behind bars for den ig rat i ng ot hers by addressing them like slaves, a first for such a crime.
Despite the symbolic power of t he US decision, bilatera l trade is negligible.
According to official Maurita nia n f ig ures, Maurita nia imported US goods worth 80 million euros i n 2017, a nd ex por ted just 1.33 mil l ion euros.