Mau­ri­ta­nia, US in spat over ‘slav­ery’ charge

The Phnom Penh Post - - BUSINESS -

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.

‘In­suf­fi­cient progress’

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.

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