Titilope Osunkojo

Who would have imagined slavery still existed anywhere in the world in this century?

Why should state sovereignty mask human rights abuses?

We had hoped that mankind had gone beyond this act of bestiality. If anyone, like me thought this aberration had been abolished from society then you are in for a shocker! John D Sutter’s CNN report, ‘Slavery’s Last Stronghold’ shows that this practice still persists in Mauritania.

Mauritania is a West African country bordering the North Atlantic Ocean and a multiethnic society of more than 3 Million citizens of which sadly up to 20% are still said to be slaves. Slave raiding and trading has been a feature of the Mauritanian society since slave trading first occurred with
Europe and America. The descendants of these slaves are still enslaved by the descendants of their forefathers’ masters; the Beydane or white Moors, the ruling caste in Mauritania.

There have been different attempts to abolish slavery in Mauritania since 1905. It was in that year that the Colonial French Administration abolished slavery in Mauritania. Subsequently in 1961, after its independence, the constitution further again declared that slavery had been
abolished. In 2007, the country made slavery criminal with a jail term of 10 years but since then only one person has been successfully prosecuted.

The Mauritanian government denies the presence of slavery within its borders but the testimony of escaped slaves tells a different story altogether. Stories of rape, starvation, poverty, death and degradation flow out of this place.

This horror is not limited to Mauritania; it exists in varying degrees in other places. Take for example, the ‘Osu Caste system’ in the Eastern part of Nigeria which still negatively influences many courtships and marriages. Additionally, in India, especially in the rural areas, violent clashes still occur because of the caste system.

There have been various suggestions to ending human bondage situations:

1. Allowing the international community to carry out a survey of slavery;

2. Rehabilitating freed slaves and

3. Providing legal representation for victims.

All these suggestions are valid but they are dependent on the cooperation of the Mauritanian government who in many parts has denied the existence of slavery within its territory. The doctrine of State sovereignty gives any government the authority to govern itself and
maintain law and order within its territory; it also protects it from invasion from any other state. The few exceptions to the general rule of non-intervention in the affairs of a state include cases of genocide. Should this veil of sovereignty that covers a state not be lifted in situations like this to restore some dignity to these people whose hope has been stolen, and whose fundamental human rights have been violated even though there is no outbreak of violence? The sovereignty of a state presupposes that the sovereign authority will protect the interests and rights of
every citizen. If this duty is not being discharged by the government how can these people be protected without the help of the international community?

I believe this issue in Mauritania falls within the provisions of the Genocide Convention and an intervention from the International Community is needed to put an end to it.

Titilope Osunkojo is a graduate student in the International Relations program at UMass Boston.