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US and Mauritania in dispute over slavery charge

US pulled African country's status as a preferential trade partner, accusing Mauritania of tolerating forced labour and slavery
Mauritanian activists have pushed to end slavery and its vestiges for decades (AFP)

Mauritania has reacted with anger after the United States pulled its status as a preferential trade partner, accusing the African country of tolerating forced labour and hereditary slavery.

Washington's decision will terminate Mauritania's eligibility for trade preference with the US starting 1 January.

Mauritanian government spokesman Mohamed Ould Maham lashed out at the move on Twitter Monday, calling it "a betrayal of the friendly relations between our countries and a denial of our efforts" to roll back slavery practices.

Mauritania, a desert country that straddles North and West Africa, outlawed slavery in 1981, making it the last country in the world to do so. The practice had existed for generations and played a critical part of the country’s social hierarchy, with slave status passed down hereditarily.

According to conservative estimates, just over one percent of the Mauritanian population still lives under some form of slavery. That would mean that some 43,000 people in the country of about 4.3 million are slaves.

The government of Mauritania disputes this, saying the country is no longer home to slavery, but rather "the vestiges of slavery," including poverty, social and economic exclusion and unequal access to education for members of the country's former slave class, known as Haratine.

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Ould Maham pointed to US President Donald Trump's response to recent criticism of Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying Riyadh got favourable treatment from Washington 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.

However, the US said its decision was based on an annual review of eligibility under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which requires 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 particular, the scourge of hereditary slavery," the 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."

Despite the symbolic power of the US decision, bilateral trade is negligible. According to official Mauritanian figures, Mauritania imported US goods worth over 80 million euros in 2017, and its exports totalled just 1.33 million euros.

Calls to recognise rights of slave descendants

The Mauritanian government criminalised slavery in 2007 and less than a decade later, in 2015, made it a crime against humanity punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

But very few slave owners have ever been held accountable by the courts, receiving only minimal sentences and sometimes not being prosecuted at all. Human rights groups have complained about a lack of political will to actually enforce the laws.

In March, however, two slave owners were sentenced to 10 and 20 years in prison, respectively, in the coastal city of Nouadhibou, Reuters reported.

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A month later, another court gave three men the maximum sentence of a year behind bars for denigrating others by addressing them like slaves, a first for such a crime.

A campaign was also launched in April in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, in support of the rights of Haratine, who number in the hundreds of thousands.

The Ana Hartani Mani Barrani campaign (loosely translated as "I am Haratine, not a stranger") called for the recognition of Haratine identity rights, as well as the community’s inclusion into wider Mauritanian society.

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