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Mauritania must enable the dissemination of information about modern slavery

Men run from tear gas fired by police during an anti-slavery demonstration to demand the liberation of imprisoned abolitionist leader Biram Ould Abeid in Nouakchott, Mauritania 26 May 2012
Men run from tear gas fired by police during an anti-slavery demonstration to demand the liberation of imprisoned abolitionist leader Biram Ould Abeid in Nouakchott, Mauritania 26 May 2012

REUTERS/Joe Penney

This statement was originally published on mfwa.org on 2 December 2015.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) joins the world in observing the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on December 2. In order to abolish slavery in practice, the MFWA calls on Mauritania to open spaces for civil society actors, including journalists, to raise awareness about slavery as an unlawful and de-humanising institution.

In his message to commemorate this day, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), saying it provides a road-map for eradicating root causes of slavery. The 17 SDGs and 169 targets direct states to take immediate and effective measures to end modern slavery and to ensure access to information and the protection of fundamental freedoms, among other steps. The SDGs are “integrated and indivisible” and support the well-established fact that freedom of the press, a main provider of information, enables the protection of other fundamental freedoms, such as the absolute freedom from slavery.

Modern slavery takes many forms, ranging from forced labor, child labor, and trafficking. Today, the MFWA is highlighting slavery issues in Mauritania; however, West Africa is home to all forms of modern slavery. Despite obligations to prevent and combat trafficking under international law, most West African countries have failed to fulfill their duties to address trafficking problems. While data collection remains a problem, studies have found disturbing levels of slavery of children. For instance, all countries in West Africa, except Cape Verde, have child labor rates above 15%. Half of West Africa has rates of 21–30%. The worst offender is Burkina Faso (39%), followed closely by Guinea-Bissau (38%), then Ghana (34%) and Niger (31%). The use of child soldiers also falls under the category of child labor, and children have been forcibly recruited by non-state actors in Mali and Nigeria. The rate of child marriage in Niger is 76%; in Mali, 55%; Guinea, 52%; Burkina Faso, 52%. The media, due to its ability to influence social norms and protect rights, can provide information and narratives to educate the public and eliminate slavery practices.

The MFWA is focusing on Mauritania because it exemplifies both egregious slavery practices and clampdowns on freedom of expression, particularly of journalists and activists. Although slavery is illegal and prosecutable in Mauritania, it remains embedded in social structures and persists at astounding rates. According to the Global Slavery Index, about 4% of the population is enslaved, giving Mauritania the highest proportion of enslaved persons in the world. At a recent U.N.-level human rights review, Mauritania agreed to increase awareness on the prohibition of slavery; however, it refused to accept a recommendation to protect freedom of expression, particularly of journalists and human rights defenders. This begs the question of how committed Mauritania is to eradicating slavery.

In light of attacks on anti-slavery demonstrators and journalists covering slavery issues, including instances of self-censorship, over the last five years, the MFWA demands Mauritania to reform its stance on free expression rights. Unless the government respects and protects the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, journalists in particular cannot disseminate information about the ills of this custom or other rights violations. In turn, this denies the public their right to access to information. Given the nature of the prohibition against slavery, the MFWA urges Mauritania to create an enabling environment for anti-slavery activists and journalists to raise awareness and further campaign to end modern slavery practices.

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