In response to a petition originally filed by the AFL-CIO in 2017, the U.S. government gave Mauritania an ultimatum: It must make sufficient progress toward protecting internationally recognized workers' rights, including combating the scourge of hereditary slavery, or face the loss of trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Mauritania has until Jan. 1, 2019 to take action.
Mauritania was the last country on Earth to prohibit slavery—in 1981. However, slavery persists. Since at least 2002, the International Labor Organization has tried—without success—to work cooperatively with the government of Mauritania to end the practice. That’s why the AFL-CIO’s petition and the corresponding U.S. government action are so important. The trade benefits that Mauritania stands to lose create an incentive for action.
While Mauritania prohibits slavery in law, it fails to take action to abolish the practice. To the contrary, human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery Internationalhave documented harassment and jailing of anti-slavery activists. Mauritania has even charged some activists with blasphemy—a crime subject to the death penalty.
Let’s be clear: Mauritania doesn’t simply allow “slavery-like” conditions. It allows chattel slavery, in which people are treated as personal property to be disposed of as owners please. Most slavery victims in Mauritania are ethnic Haratines, who are rented, loaned, given away and even passed along as inheritance. These enslaved people have no freedom and suffer serious physical abuse, including sexual abuse and rape. No country that knowingly allows such practices should receive benefits from the U.S. government.
The AFL-CIO is hopeful that this notice will be a wake-up call for the government of Mauritania to stop paying lip service to ending slavery and protecting workers, and to start enforcing anti-slavery laws, vigorously prosecuting slaveholders, and otherwise protecting fundamental labor and human rights for all its people. We also hope that other governments will follow the United States’ lead and put pressure on Mauritania to end slavery once and for all.