Crimes Against Humanity: Slavery, Genocide and Concentration Camps – In Our Own Time? with Abidine Merzough

Abidine Merzough, Mauritanian activist and European Coordinator of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, addresses the 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Abidine Merzough: Ladies and gentlemen,

I am happy to be able to inform you about my native land Mauritania. Mauritania is the third country in the world, after Iran and Pakistan, to define itself as an Islamic Republic. But this is misleading, a lie. For in reality, Mauritania is not Islamic at all. Those whho are knowledgeable about Islam realize that the genuine Islamic religion and other sources of divine origin is fair, egalitarian, social, peaceful and non-violent. In Mauritania, the local form of Islam is totally counter to its humanist principles. For centuries, the foundation of Mauritaniansociety has been built on the foundation of slavery based on birth, which meant that people [who] are born slaves stay slaves. Racism, exclusion and rejection of all those who are black as well. 

Mauritania is a country based on hypocrisy, lies and injustice. It is a country with the smae apartheid system South Africa had, with the sole difference that in Mauritania, apartheid if not regulated by written laws enacted by the state, even though these laws do exist and are applied on a daily basis. These laws are visible and affect half of the population, that is Haratines. In Mauritania today, in 2012-2013, the Haratines, that is blacks [who are] descendants of slaves and former African slaves, [] are still being subjected to the atrocious practice of slavery that aflicted the civilized world in the past. 

This phenomenon still continues in Mauritania today thanks to an evil alliance sealed between two entities made up of slavers. On the one hand, there is the clergy, that is imams who scholars of the religious sciences who write laws on slavery through religious fatwas, taken from a black code established in the 9th-15th centuries by hunters of black men.  On the other hand, there is a group made up of those wielding power, flout human rights and protected slavers by refusing to respect the laws abolishing and criminalizing slavery. 

Ladies and gentlemen, forgive me if I am giving you a bitter account of the definition of the black slavery code, which the clergy in Mauritanian is defending so fiercely. The clergy is, of course, being supported by the country’s leaders. Allow me to cite certain precepts that are still being taught in all the religious schools of the clergy. Therefore, they are teaching these precepts. They say that slaves are the master’s property; they are his possession, they belong to him and may be passed on as part of the inheritance. Secondly, the condition of slavery is transmitted from parent to child. Thirdly, there’s a precept that says women slaves must submit their bodies, give their bodies, make them available to their masters. They are allowed to abuse these women when they want to and masters are allowed to sell or buy slaves. They can sell or buy them. Or they can sell or buy just a part of their bodies. That is, arms or legs. This is islamic law as it exists in Mauritania today. Women slaves are not allowed to hide their bodies from their masters’ view. So if the masters demand that women remain nude, naked, in front of them, it is allowed. The master is afforded the right in this situation. 

There’s another law that says that slaves that don’t obey will go to hell. So those who do not accept this and disobey, will go to hell. That’s how slaves are taught and they grow up with this idea. So they cannot leave because it’s against their religion. Now masters can sell or marry off their slaves to whomever they choose. They decide when and how they are going to marry and whom they’re going to marry. And if the master is against the marriage, it won’t happen. And, the masters may end their slaves’ marriage whenever they choose to.  That is, if a slave is married and the master says “I don’t want this person to be married to this person,”  he can stop it. This is allowed according to the religion and this is a so-called Islamic religion.

Slaves and their descendants are forbidden from leading prayer. They are not allowed to lead any kind of religious ritual and this is very important in Islam. Masters may choose at any moment to have sexual relations with their female slaves. They can sexually abuse slaves and this is the law that exists in the country that is still being taught. 

Ladies and gentlemen, my presence before you today is the result of an exceptional and unusual story. Although I am Mauritanian and the son of former slaves, I was lucky enough to be educated in german schools. This is thanks to my illiterate father, born to slave parents, who as a child already refused to submit to slavery. The revolt he led against his masters allowed him to win his freedom. If a slave refuses or rebels, he is made free. He becomes free but he will be used as a slave. He is declared a member of the family. This is a technique that is adopted by the country. Later, in 1975, he led an uprising of slaves in his village. And in 1980, he freed a community of Haratines, made up of some 300 families of slaves. And I still recall that historic day in 1975. 

When the masters refused to enroll the slave children in the new and only village school, arguing that that this went against Mauritanian religion and custom. So my father at the time had not been able to convince the slaves to enroll their children in that school. So only I, my sister and two cousins were admitted. along with the masters’ children. And that is how I was lucky enough to be educated and come to Europe for my university education.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mauritania is the only country in the world that has had more than five laws, decrees or legal circulars, that aim to abolish traditional slavery; five times in Mauritania. But this has been without any effect. These laws merely aimed to stop criticism by the international community. The country merely wished to save its image abroad but they had no intention of enacting these laws. Here I would like to show you page three. These are the laws, the decrees, that have been enacted since the history of the country that all aimed at abolishing slavery. But, slavery has not been eliminated in Mauritania. I won’t read all these laws. But today in the country, slavery includes more than 20 % of the population; that is more than 600,000 people of the Haratine community [that] are still slaves. And, there [are] direct and indirect impact[s] on people. But there are 600,000 people still living in slavery across the country. 

Women and children are the primary victims of these practices because they are the weakest, they are not protected, they cannot flee. Our NGO has uncovered hundreds of documented cases between 2012 and 2013. But, athey have all been dismissed. The cases have all been dismissed because the law feels that the relationship between masters and slaves is a family-like relationship and that they are not slaves. And so, all these cases have been dismissed. The last ten cases that we’ve uncovered date back to a mere three weeks. In the last case, we had a small measure of success in [a] case recently. Yesterday, the woman was freed thanks to a cousin because she became a member of the family of a general appeal to the precedent. And there was a demonstration that ensued. The family said: “If you do not free this woman we will make trouble.” And so they decided that they didn’t want to have a show of rebellion. These are the cases of slavery that we [have] brought before the judiciary and you can see that they are children and women. The Children that are 10-14 years old and these cases have not been resolved yet.

Since independence in 1960, all the regimes that have come to power in Mauritania have denied the existence of slavery in the country. Human rights defenders have been pursued and persecuted. And with the end of the dictatorship in 2005, there was hope that this situation would change. From one day to the next, the entire country was talking about slavery, demanding justice and equality. That’s how it first came to be that the first law criminalizing slavery was promulgated in 2007. It took them 50 years to enact a law criminalizing slavery; that was in 2007. There was a democratically elected President at the time. But then there was a coup that brought in the current head of state, General Mohammed Abdel Aziz, in 2008 and things changed rapidly and Mauritania slid backwards. Those in power once again refused to recognize that slavery continues to exist in the country and those who are anti-slavery are treated like enemies of the nation and of Islam. They are called “Israeli Mossad spies”, and the head of state organizes media briefings to declare that slavery has never existed in Mauritania. In 2012, two times. And that human rights defenders are troublemakers and should be indicted and severely punished according to Islamic Sharia law. In a country like Mauritania, where the supreme head, the President, launches popular demonstrations calling for the heads of anti-slavery activists, that he himself organizes and oversees, it is unrealistic to expect that a law criminalizing and punishing slavery to actually be implemented. Let me show you page five and six. This is the march the President had organized with security. He called upon the learned and the elders to come out with a Fatwa against the anti-slavery movement. And the President came to give a hero’s welcome in front of the presidential building for those who came out in favour of slavery.

Mauritania is a country of racism. I’d like to refer you to the list of officials and personnel appointed throughout the country in the institutions, in the administration, the government, the diplomatic corps, the army security forces, the police, the public companies, etc. In all cases, without exception, only one ethnic group, the Beydhan, hold more than 80% of all positions. Blacks are generally relegated to jobs that are of low social status that involve harsh working conditions. Here you can see the number of officials that have been appointed. This is just for 2012. And you see how it is distributed by ethnic group: The Arabo-Berbéres make up only 25% of the population, but they have almost 80% of the good positions. The Haritines have less than 10% and the black Africans are at 14%. So this is how the situation is in Mauritania, has always been in Mauritania. The authorities want to keep the situation this way. They want to keep the blacks and the former slaves as underdogs, underrepresent them in the country although they represent 20% to 25% of the country.

The regime has also undertaken a strategy for education that aims to keep the Haratines uneducated. The authorities ignore areas where the majority of the population is Haratine. Teachers are often members of the community of slavers and  leave school as of opening time but they are never sanctioned for this. The slavers enroll their children in elite private schools, where the children of the poor have no entry. The upshot of this discriminatory educational system is that only the Arabo-Berbére children have access to University Education and join the ranks of the ruling “elite.” Also, it’s because they know that the Haritane, the poor, will rise up and so you have to keep them uneducated so that they won’t rise up. This is a long-standing tradition. You can see the timeline here from 1960 till now. You can see the period when independence came about that the Beydhan were represented [at] 40 % but now they are the great majority. In the past there were no Haratine officials in the army or administration. 

Before I conclude, I would like to appeal to the civilized and free world to put pressure on Mauritania for it to honor its commitments to the international community, to implement its laws, to bring justice and equality to the country. The international community must not allow itself to be fooled or manipulated by a regime whose main concern is to protect the slavers. Mauritanian leaders are past masters in the art of manipulation of facts and they manipulate everything they can today. Today’s Mauritania does not deserve to be elected vice president of the Human Rights Council, which has just taken place. This is a great error and should not be accepted. We must denouce this because slavery continues to exist today as it did 50 years ago; nothing has changed. And we call upon development owners to tie their aid to projects to help slaves and the poor to work with NGOs in the area. 

We call for reforms in the educational system that will focus on underprivileged populations. It is through education that we will be able to free the slaves. As you see here in the beginning of school, most of the children are black.  But later at the higher level or University, they are white. There’s a selection process. Special training is given to girls who will work in the administration. They’re given military education now so that they can help govern the country. You go to secondary school or university or abroad, and you will only see whitess representing Mauritania. 

Here you see the police that are colluding in the task of beating human rights defenders at demonstrations in which people call for justice. 

I thank you.

Speakers and Participants

Abidine Merzough

Anti-slavery activist, European Coordinator of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania


Human Rights

The Abolitionist Who Won’t Be Silenced with Biram Dah Abeid

Biram Dah Abeid, Mauritanian antislavery campaigner and founder of Mauritania’s Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), receives the Courage Award and addresses the 12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks. On slavery in Mauritania: “Our parents,

Modern Slavery

Ending Slavery with Biram Dah Abeid

Biram Dah Abeid, leader of the anti-slavery campaign in Mauritania, addresses the 9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks. On slavery in Mauritania: “I, a regular visitor to the hellish and life threatening jails of my country, where on

Modern Slavery

The Battle to End Slavery with Biram Dah Abeid

Biram Dah Abeid, “the Nelson Mandela of Mauritania,” founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) and an antislavery campaigner, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.   Full Remarks   Biram Dah Abeid: I thank you, dear

Presentation of the 2020 Courage Award with Brandon Silver

Brandon Silver, international human rights lawyer, and Director of Policy and Projects at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, addresses the 12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks. On the Geneva Summit: “At the 2020 Geneva Summit for