The African Union has reprimanded Mauritania for failing to take action against widespread slavery within its borders and ordered the government to give financial compensation to two child slaves who were failed by its legal system.
The landmark ruling is the first time the AU has spoken out against the pervasive practice of hereditary slavery in Mauritania, which activists believe affects many thousands of people.
Despite passing slavery laws in 2007, and amending them in 2015, Mauritania has only prosecuted two cases of slavery. In 2011, after sustained regional and international pressure, the Mauritanian courts sentenced Ahmed Ould El Hassine to two years in jail and to pay 1.35m Mauritanian ouguiya (£2,700) to two brothers, Said and Yarg Ould Salem, who had been kept in slavery since birth.
After lawyers representing the brothers appealed to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), an AU body that was set up to protect child welfare across the region, the committee criticised the leniency of the sentence and said the Mauritanian government was creating a culture of impunity, allowing slavery to continue unfettered across the region.
Under Mauritanian law the minimum sentence for slavery crimes is five years. The convicted slave master is yet to be jailed, pending appeal, and according to anti-slavery campaigners other members of his family are yet to face prosecution.
In the ruling, the committee found the state to be in violation of its obligations to protect children’s rights under the African Children’s Charter, a legal framework that was set up to protect African children from discrimination, child labour and harmful cultural practices.
Mauritania is now required to pay the two child victims financial compensation and to provide them with psychosocial support and education.
The ACERWC ruling also demanded that Mauritania take wider actions to prevent child slavery across the region.
Despite the ruling having no enforcement mechanism, Anti-Slavery International said the verdict puts a lot of pressure on Mauritania to act.
“This ruling will make it hard for the Mauritanian government to deny that this remains a very serious problem that they need to address,” said the organisation’s Jakub Sobik.
“Hopefully it will pave the way for some of the nearly 50 cases of slavery stuck in the Mauritanian court system to progress. If the Mauritanian government is unwilling to prosecute slavery of its own volition, we will have to make it happen through international pressure.”
Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981 and passed anti-slavery laws in 2007, but these laws still haven’t been implemented. In large parts of the country, slave status is still passed down from mother to child.