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 friends. First of all, I’d also like to thank all the international organizations like the United Nations, Amnesty International, FIDH [the International Federation for Human Rights], the OMCT [the World Organisation Against Torture], Frontline Defenders, and many other organizations who adopted me during my many periods of imprisonment, when I was a prisoner of opinion, and who have always adopted my friends who have also suffered in this way and have been detained. I’d like to thank the United Nations Organization for human rights, and I’d like to thank the United Nations, who awarded me the most recent award for human rights. And I would like to thank the other organizations coming from other cities in the world, like Vellmar in Germany and Frontline in Ireland, who have awarded an award to me as well. 

I am a descendant of a slave. I am from the servile community of Mauritania that makes up fifty percent of the population in Mauritania, who are constrained. That is, twenty percent out of the fifty percent have been born as property of other men. We were inherited by other people. We were their property. They were their assets. I am a free man, and I come from a group of a community that are free men now, but are practically maintained in a situation of sub-citizen. 

We suffer from discrimination — all different kinds of discrimination — and it’s all based on the idea of slavery. Twenty percent of our fellow citizens of my Haratin community are slaves or are descendants of slaves, often domestic slaves, and are forced to hard work without rest or salary. Women slaves are not allowed to marry [and] do not remain virgins beyond their early childhood because, in Mauritania, there is a code, a black code, that governs our country that cloaks itself with Sharia law. It says that the only interpretation of the Quran and of the Prophet Muhammad authorizes the sale of slaves, authorizes the violation of young girls and women, and also allows a decrease in equality amongst human beings between Black and White people. 

The Arab Berber population, which [makes] up twenty percent of the population and is a minority, is nonetheless the dominant group, and has founded their way of life based on slavery, has governed according to the precepts of slavery. Slavery is ever-present in their life. Twenty percent of the population are not allowed to have identity papers and are not allowed to travel, don’t know their own parents; they don’t know who their fathers and mothers are. This twenty percent of the population are made up of women and slaves. There is a state racism that has become institutionalized that has caused pogroms, purges, bloody purges, collective murdering of the black population, of different groups like [the] Wolof and the Bambara.

Thousands of people in Senegal and Mali are involved in the hanging and murders of those who dare to demonstrate against slavery. Now with my friends I founded an organization IRA, the resurgence of the abolitionist movement in Mauritania. It was immediately prohibited, and we were imprisoned many times. The 27th of April, 2012, in a voluntary active protest against the continuation of slavery and its practices. In an act that represents depriving me of my right to think [and] to speak freely, I offered, publicly and symbolically, examples of the black code that justifies the racism of this code of slavery in Mauritania. 

And the reaction of the government was to close down the neighborhood that I live in; a neighborhood that was marginalized, and isolated, encircled by the government, where dozens of cars came in. My home was bombarded, and tear gas and bombs were unleashed on us. The phone was cut off, internet networks were cut. I was arrested violently. My wife, my children, my neighbors passed out. Many of them were wounded. Many of them lost consciousness. I was imprisoned in isolated military barracks far away, cut off from contact with healthcare, with lawyers, from my parents. The head of state in his council of ministers decreed that I was infamous and should be meted out exemplary punishment. And the dominant group of slave supporters spread through the country and organized demonstrations to demand that I be hanged. They promised that I would be hanged and that I deserved to die. 

And the government convened all the ministers who were accredited in Nouakchott that was transmitted on television. What shocks me when I recall this is that the ambassadors of democratic countries did not speak up about freedom of speech or of worship in their own countries. They remained silent. 

I recall, as well, that we were isolated, and we were kept in difficult living conditions, and there were TV programs that were transmitted, talking about how I was going to be hanged. I was told not to react; it’ll be a gift to the government. And they said on television, “We will kill him like we kill a cat.” My wife and my children were all watching this. 

This violence is atrocious. The violence inflicted by the dominant class on the more vulnerable group, on those who have no power, those who are unable to defend themselves. The only response by the government to the reaction by the international organizations was to enact laws to ratify all the UN conventions because our authorities know that the West and the international community is happy just to see cosmetic changes; that they will not scratch deeper, and that Mauritania will never implement its laws, that it enacts to please the international community. But these laws have never been put into action. We, the advocates of human rights, those of us who defend the victims of slavery, the widows, the orphans, people who’ve lost their husbands, their fathers in charnel houses, in violent situations deserve our help. 

I have been bombarded with tear gas; I go to prison. Whereas, those who kill people – who have turned children into orphans, who have turned women into widows; who have killed people because they are Black, because they are weak so that they can remove blocks from the country– these people are in high positions. These people are officials. These people deal with the democratic governments of Western world. 

They want the people to create organizations and the government wants to have informers come forward, and they insult me in the national media. They denigrate me, they slander me, and they line their pockets thanks to this. Now I follow these people in international fora, and I say we need another voice. We need a voice to speak up, where you say that there is no slavery, there’s no racism in Mauritania. 

World Organization Against Slavery has said in its research that Mauritania has the highest number of slaves in the entire world. It ranks number one in terms of slavery, and in my own research, I have estimated that twenty percent of the entire population is made up of slaves, domestic slaves; they can be sold, they are castrated. And this is part of the constitution. The law says that when a child slave is born and he is handsome, it is said that the child should be castrated, because when he grows up, women, the wives of the masters or the daughters of the masters, may be tempted to have sex with him. And this might lead to a mix of pure blood with the slave’s blood. It is on the basis of such books that magistrates are trained, and imams as well. And I am still liable to the death penalty; there are three charges against me. 

I am an activist, but there has been a revolt by my people, who have taken to the streets, who are resisting repression and torture and sanctions by the police to disperse the demonstrators. But the courts acquitted me because in Mauritania, it is not a crime to burn books. But the court put me in prison once again. I was detained, and I was charged with being an apostate, with harming the security of the state. Many of my friends have also been charged with similar matters. They are intimidating us. They want to push us to capitulate, to go into exile. But I refuse. I will stay in the country. And I will fight.

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