Mauritania is an Islamic Republic with a president as head of state and a constitution grounded in French civil law and sharia (Islamic law). The National Assembly exercises legislative functions but was weak relative to the executive. Voters elect deputies to the National Assembly, municipal mayors, and regional councilors. On June 22, voters elected former minister of defense Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani as president in the first round of the presidential elections with 52 percent of the vote. The election marked the first democratic transition of power between two elected presidents since the country’s independence in 1960. Both the United Nations and African Union observers considered the election to be relatively free and fair. In the September 2018 parliamentary elections, the Union for the Republic (UPR), the political party founded by former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, won a majority 95 of 157 seats in the National Assembly.
The Ministry of Interior and Decentralization controls the National Police, which is responsible for enforcing the law and maintaining order in urban areas. The National Guard performs a limited police function in keeping with its peacetime role as the guarantor of physical security at government facilities, to include prisons. Regional authorities may call upon the National Guard to restore civil order during riots and other large-scale disturbances. The gendarmerie, a specialized paramilitary organization under the authority of the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for maintaining civil order around metropolitan areas and providing law enforcement services in rural areas. The Ministry of Interior and Decentralization’s newest police force, the General Group for Road Safety, maintains security on roads and operates checkpoints throughout the country. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included allegations of torture by law enforcement officers; arbitrary and politically motivated arrests; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; sporadic restrictions on freedom of assembly; restrictions on freedom of association and religion; widespread corruption; crimes of violence against women and girls, which the government took little action to prevent or prosecute; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; continued existence of slavery and slavery-related practices with antislavery organizations subjected to restrictions; trafficking in persons; and child labor.
The government took modest steps to punish officials who committed violations and prosecuted some violators, but officials frequently acted with impunity. Civil society organizations objected to the scant number of indictments handed down by the authorities.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, and the government arbitrarily and selectively applied regulations to suppress individuals or groups of individuals who opposed government policies. Individuals were generally free to criticize the government publicly but were occasionally subject to retaliation. The constitution and law prohibit racial or ethnic propaganda. The government used these provisions against political opponents, accusing them of “racism” or “promoting national disunity” for speaking out against the extreme underrepresentation in government of disadvantaged populations (namely the Haratines, or “Black Moors”), and sub-Saharan Africans.
Freedom of Expression: There were no major restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression. Nevertheless, local NGOs and bloggers, among other observers, reported the government’s actions in recent years discredited their image and reputation.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Several independent daily publications expressed a range of views with limited restrictions. Throughout the year incidents of government retaliation against media decreased compared with the previous year.
On July 3, authorities arrested Ahmedou Ould Wediaa, an antislavery activist and a journalist for the private television station al-Mourabitoune. The same day, another journalist, Camara Seydi Moussa, known for his frequent criticism of the government, was released after being detained for one week by police. These arrests were linked to the journalists’ published criticism of the presidential election process and disputation of the election results. Independent media remained the principal source of information for most citizens, followed by government media. Government media focused primarily on official news but provided some coverage of opposition activities and views–a practice that was noticeably more frequent after the new government took office in August.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some opposition leaders asserted they had no access to official media channels or outlets. The government made payment of back taxes, at times unpaid for years with official complicity, a matter of priority, threatening several independent media stations with insolvency. Since the August inauguration of the new president, private media channels have not reported being threatened.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions.
In-country Movement: Persons lacking identity cards could not travel freely in some regions. As in previous years, the government set up mobile roadblocks where gendarmes, police, or customs officials checked the papers of travelers.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, vulnerable migrants, and other persons of concern. Resources provided by the government were inadequate to meet the assistance needs of these populations.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR carries out refugee status determinations under its mandate and then presents cases to the National Consultative Commission for Refugees for recognition. The country hosted nearly 57,000 Malian refugees in the M’bera refugee camp and continued to offer asylum to new refugee arrivals. The country also provided additional security in the camp to allow the Malian refugees to vote in the 2018 Malian presidential election.
In accordance with agreements with the Economic Community of West African States on freedom of movement, the government allows West Africans to remain in the country for up to three months, after which they must apply for residency or work permits. Authorities immediately deported migrants determined to be illegally seeking to reach Spain’s nearby Canary Islands.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by government officials, but authorities did not enforce the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The law defines corruption as “all exploitation by a public agent of his position for personal purposes, whether this agent is elected, or in an administrative or judicial position.” Corrupt practices were widely believed to exist at all levels of government. The 2015 anticorruption law was mostly used as a weapon against opponents of the regime.
Corruption: Corruption and impunity were serious problems in public administration, and the government rarely held officials accountable or prosecuted them for abuses. There were reports government officials frequently used their power to obtain personal favors, such as unauthorized exemption from taxes, special grants of land, and preferential treatment during bidding on government projects. Corruption was most pervasive in government procurement but was also common in the distribution of official documents, fishing and mining licenses, land distribution, as well as in bank loans and tax payments. Although there was a slight increase in prosecutions for corruption during the year, authorities rarely jailed those found guilty. Instead, they were usually fired and required only to return the funds. One exception was Mohamedou Ould Mohamed Lemine, a former accountant of the National Guard who was sentenced in April 2018 to five years in prison for economic crimes.
Financial Disclosure: The government enforced the requirement that senior officials, including the president, file a declaration of their personal assets at the beginning and end of their government service. This information is not available to the public. During the year the opposition continued to denounce former president Aziz and other government members’ nondisclosure of their personal assets as required by law. On July 31, on the last official day of his presidency, Aziz made a declaration of assets to the Committee on Financial Transparency in Public Life, but this information was not made public. His former minister of finance did the same and later disclosed his information on his personal Facebook page.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Several domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Several domestic and international groups also reported evidence of a general change in attitude under the new government, citing statements by government human rights bodies calling attention to international laws and conventions protecting human rights as well as increased willingness to work with human rights groups.
There were restrictions on some human rights groups, particularly those investigating cases of slavery and slavery-related practices. On March 17, authorities prevented entry of a delegation from Amnesty International.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Commissariat for Human Rights and Humanitarian Action designs, promotes, and implements national human rights policies. The commissariat managed government and internationally funded human rights and humanitarian assistance programs. During a visit to the United States in October, the head of the commissariat met with several international human rights groups, including those, such as the Abolition Institute, who had previously been denied entry to Mauritania, and invited them to visit the country and assist with government efforts to improve human rights legislation and encourage prevention of abuses.
The CNDH, an independent ombudsman organization, includes government and civil society representatives. It actively monitored human rights conditions and advocated for government action to correct violations. The CNDH produced an annual report on thematic human rights topics, conducted regular investigations (to include prison and police detention center facility visits in the aftermath of the wave of postelection arrests conducted by government authorities), and made recommendations to the government. In November the CNDH launched an information “caravan” of public meetings in the country’s far eastern Hodh el Chargui region, where human rights groups believe that cases of hereditary slavery continued to persist, to sensitize marginalized, largely illiterate communities to their rights.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law allows all workers, except members of police, armed forces, and foreign and migrant workers, to form and join independent unions of their choice at local and national levels and provides for the right to conduct legal strikes and to bargain collectively. Other provisions and laws severely restrict or excessively regulate these rights. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Prior authorization or approval by authorities is required before a union may be recognized. The public prosecutor must authorize all trade unions before they enjoy legal status. The public prosecutor may provisionally suspend a trade union at the request of the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization if ministry officials believe the union has not complied with the law. The law also provides that authorities may initiate legal proceedings against union leaders who undermine public order or make false statements. This law, in effect, authorizes administrative authorities to dissolve, suspend, or deregister trade union organizations by unilateral decision.
Noncitizens do not have the right to become trade union officials unless they have worked in the country and in the profession represented by the trade union for at least five years. Labor unions must obtain government authorization in order to hold labor elections. Despite previous promises by the government to do so, it has not authorized union elections since 2014. The government has promised to restore union elections on multiple occasions since suspending them in 2014 but has not yet done so.
Bargaining collectively at the national level requires previous authorization or approval by the president, who decides how collective bargaining is organized. No such authorization is required for collective bargaining at the company level. The minister of labor, public service, and modernization of the administration may call for bargaining among employers, employees, labor unions, and the government. In addition the ministry is entitled to take part in the preparation of collective agreements. The law provides that the meeting must occur 15 days following a statement of nonagreement between parties.
The law provides for the right to strike, except for those working in services deemed essential. Aggrieved parties must follow complex procedures before conducting a strike action. If negotiations between workers and employers fail to produce an agreement, the case is referred to the Court of Arbitration. If the court fails to broker a mutually satisfactory agreement, workers may have to wait up to four additional months from the time of the decision before they can legally strike. The government may also dissolve a union for what it considers an illegal or politically motivated strike. The law prohibits workers from holding sit-ins or blocking nonstriking workers from entering work premises. Workers must provide advance notice of at least 10 working days to the Ministry of Labor, Public Service, and Modernization of the Administration for any strike.
The government did not enforce the law effectively and did not provide adequate resources for inspections. While authorities seldom punished violators, on several occasions the government ordered the reinstatement of workers who were wrongfully terminated or directed companies to improve employee benefits and services. While antiunion discrimination is illegal, national human rights groups and unions reported authorities did not actively investigate alleged antiunion practices in some private firms.
Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not fully respected, although unions exercised their right to organize workers during the year. Collective bargaining at the company level, however, was rare. Longshoremen of the Autonomous Port of Nouakchott observed a general strike in July 2018. On June 14, longshoremen occupied the central market of Nouakchott to claim the full implementation of the agreements reached during the strike the previous year. According to the Mauritanian Workers’ Free Confederation, the authorities dismissed thousands of longshoremen without giving them their rights, adding that the walkout came in response to the “arbitrary policies and decisions” taken against the carriers.
Registration and strike procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Labor ministry officials routinely issued notices calling on all parties to negotiate. Such notices legally restrict workers from striking for a period of four months. Workers and unions organized several strikes and, in an improvement over previous years, authorities only occasionally employed force to disperse them.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits most forms of forced or compulsory labor, including by children. It also criminalizes the practice of slavery, which includes forced labor and child labor, and imposes penalties, both on government officials who do not take action in response to reported cases and on those who benefit from contracting forced labor. The constitution and the Law on the Criminalization of Slavery and Punishing Slave Practices makes the offense “a crime against humanity.” The antislavery law grants civil society organizations the right to file complaints in court on behalf of victims as civil parties; however, many civil society organizations reported difficulty in filing complaints on behalf of victims. The law also provides free legal assistance for victims and refers to their right to compensation. Although the government continues to take some actions towards ending the practice of slavery, including increased engagement with civil society groups after the change of administration, efforts to enforce the antislavery law were considered inadequate.
Tadamoun, the government agency charged with combating the “vestiges” of slavery, received 750 million ouguiyas ($21 million) of public funding to underwrite infrastructure and educational programs to improve opportunities, primarily for the benefit of the Haratine community. Some national and international NGOs accused Tadamoun of corrupt practices, of not effectively targeting its funding to the Haratine community, and of doing little to facilitate the prosecution of slavery cases in the country.
On November 28, President Ghazouani announced the creation of a new institution to replace Tadamoun and intensify government efforts to combat slavery and address the social and economic conditions that have left many citizens vulnerable to forced labor. The General Delegation for National Solidarity and the Fight against Exclusion, or Taazour, has a larger budget, a broader mandate, and greater authorities than Tadamoun, with its head holding the rank of minister and reporting directly to the presidency. With a budget of 20 billion ouguiyas ($55 million) over the next five years, Taazour is mandated to implement projects designed to improve living conditions and provide skills to members of historically marginalized communities. The institution has the authority to coordinate projects of other government agencies in order to maximize their impact. Taazour retains Tadamoun’s prior authority to file criminal cases on behalf of victims of forced labor or exploitation.
Other than Tadamoun/Taazour, the only entities that can legally file criminal cases on behalf of former slaves are registered human rights associations that have been legally operating for five years. The government continued to prevent the registration of certain antislavery organizations and associations that work for the promotion and protection of the Haratine community; these include former slave groups that would have been able to submit complaints once their five-year probationary period had expired.
The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), one of the most active organizations fighting slavery in the country, has been prevented from registering since its creation in 2008. The government’s previous refusal to register IRA and other human rights NGOs who could have helped to file complaints on behalf of slavery victims was a contributing factor to the underutilization of the three Specialized Antislavery Courts.
In October the Nema Antislavery Court convicted five individuals across three separate cases of practicing slavery in violation of the 2007 antislavery law. The perpetrators, who are believed to reside in northern Mali, were convicted in absentia, with warrants issued for their rendition and arrest. The victims were each granted five million ouguiyas ($140,000) in financial compensation as well as provided with civil registration documents, and the convicted perpetrators were sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison.
In March 2018 the Nouadhibou Antislavery Court adjudicated its first two slavery cases by convicting and sentencing three slaveholders. A woman was convicted of enslaving three sisters in Nouadhibou and was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. The woman was released two months later due to her age and health. In April 2018 the Nouakchott Antislavery Court sentenced two defendants in two separate cases to one year in prison and a fine of 25,275 ouguiyas ($702) for the crimes of libel and slavery. The third case, in which the defendant was accused of slavery, was postponed pending a decision of the Nouakchott appeals court. The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case and closed the file.
Slavery and slavery-like practices, which typically flowed from ancestral master-slave relationships and involved both adults and children, continued throughout the year. Although reliable data on the total number of slaves does not exist, local and international experts agreed hereditary slavery and slavery-like conditions continued to affect a substantial portion of the population in both rural and urban settings. Enslaved persons suffered from traditional chattel slavery, including forced labor and forced sexual exploitation. Human rights groups reported that masters coerced persons in slavery and slave-like relationships to deny to human rights activists that such exploitative relationships existed.
In 2015 the government asked the International Labor Organization (ILO) for a program to assess the scope of forced labor in the country. Among other activities, the Bridge Project supports research in the country on recruitment mechanisms and employment conditions to help identify different types of employment that may involve slavery or slavery-like practices. In January the Ministry of Labor accelerated work on the Bridge Project after several months of delay and was on schedule to complete the project in September 2020.
Former slaves and their descendants remained in a dependent status vis-a-vis their former slave masters due to a variety of factors, to include cultural tradition, a lack of marketable skills, poverty, and persistent drought. Some former slaves and descendants of slaves were forced to revert to a de facto slave status by working for their former masters in exchange for some combination of lodging, food, and medical care. Some former slaves reportedly continued to work for their former masters or others under exploitative conditions to retain access to land that they traditionally farmed. Although the law provides for distribution of land to the landless, including to former slaves, authorities rarely enforced the law.
Former slaves in subservient circumstances were also vulnerable to mistreatment. Women with children faced particular difficulties. Because they were particularly vulnerable and lacked the resources to live independently from their former masters, they could be compelled to remain in a condition of servitude, performing domestic duties, tending fields, or herding animals without remuneration.
Some former slaves were coerced into continuing to work for their former masters, who relied on adherence to religious teachings and a fear of divine punishment to keep these individuals enslaved. Former slaves were often subjected to social discrimination and limited to performing manual labor in markets, ports, and airports.
Slavery, forced labor, and de facto slavery were more prevalent in areas where educational levels were generally low or a barter economy still prevailed, and prevalent to a lesser degree in urban centers, including Nouakchott. The practices commonly occurred where there was a need for workers to herd livestock, tend fields, and do other manual or household labor. Nevertheless, such practices also occurred in urban centers where young children, often girls, were retained as unpaid domestic servants (see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The General Child Protection Code, enacted in June 2018, forbids some, but not all of, the worst forms of child labor. The labor code sets the minimum age for employment at 16. Nevertheless, it allows children as young as 12 to be employed in most forms of family enterprise with authorization from the Ministry of Labor, Public Service, and Modernization of the Administration, as long as the work does not affect the child’s health, exceed two hours per day, or occur during school hours or holidays. The labor code states employed children between ages 14 and 16 should receive 70 percent of the minimum wage and those who are 17 and 18 should receive 90 percent of the minimum wage. Children should not work more than eight hours a day, should be given one or several one-hour breaks, and may not work at night. Children working in unpaid, temporary, or noncontractual work do not have the same protections under the child labor laws and regulations as do children working in contractual employment.
The Ministry of Labor, Public Service, and Modernization of the Administration authorized children as young as 13 to do work in a variety of areas, resulting in children doing hazardous work by government authorization in the areas of agriculture, fishing, construction, and garbage removal. Additionally, the government does not legally prohibit all forms of hazardous work as defined by international law.
The General Child Protection Code increases the penalties associated with violations of child labor laws and criminalizes commercial sexual exploitation of children and forced begging. It also increases the prison term for trafficking children. The penalties were generally insufficiently enforced to deter violations. The law does not prohibit hazardous occupations and activities in all relevant child labor sectors, including domestic work and agriculture. The law prohibits the use of children for illicit activities, such as the production and trafficking of drugs.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Existing mechanisms for exchanging information among agencies or assessing the effectiveness of child labor laws were not active during the year. There was no specific mechanism for submitting complaints, other than to labor inspectors or the Special Police Brigade for Minors. NGOs were the only organizations that handled cases of child victims, referred them to the Special Police Brigade for Minors, and pressured the government to adjudicate the cases or integrate the victims in social centers or schools during the year.
The CNDH’s 2016 annual report, which had the most recent numbers available, stated that 26 percent of children between ages of 15 and 17 worked. The report indicated the proportion of children between ages of 12 and 14 who performed some work was up to 22 percent. The report also stressed that exploitation of girls was more frequent in domestic work.
An unknown number of talibes (religious students), nearly all from the Halpulaar community, begged in the streets and gave the proceeds to their religious teachers as payment for religious instruction. There were reliable reports that some marabouts (religious teachers) forced their talibes to beg for more than 12 hours a day and provided them with insufficient food and shelter. The government continued a program to reduce the number of talibes and cooperated with NGOs to provide talibes with basic medical and nutritional care.
Child labor in the informal sector was common and a significant problem, particularly within poorer urban areas. Several reports suggested girls as young as age seven, mainly from remote regions, were forced to work as unpaid domestic servants in wealthy urban homes. Young children in the countryside were commonly engaged in cattle and goat herding, cultivation of subsistence crops, fishing, and other agricultural labor in support of their families. Young children in urban areas often drove donkey carts, delivered water and building materials, and were very active in garbage collection. Street gang leaders occasionally forced children to steal, beg, and sell drugs. In keeping with longstanding tradition, many children also served apprenticeships in small-scale industries, such as metalworking, carpentry, vehicle repair, masonry, and the informal sector.
The government continued to operate seven Centers for Protection and Social Integration of Children in Difficult Situations: one in each of the regions of Kiffa, Nouadhibou, Aleg, and Rosso, and three in Nouakchott. During the year these centers hosted 614 children.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination based on race, disability, religion, political opinion, national origin, citizenship, social origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, or language, but the government often did not enforce the law. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race and language. For example, in conformity with long-standing practice, the advancement of both Haratines and sub-Saharans in the armed services remained limited.
The law provides that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. The two largest employers, the civil service and the state mining company, observed this law; most employers in the private sector reportedly did not. In the modern wage sector, women also received family benefits, including three months of paid maternity leave. Women faced widespread employment discrimination, because employers usually preferred to hire men, with women overrepresented in low-paying positions (see section 6).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law provides for a national minimum wage that is more than the most recent estimate for the poverty income level. The law provides that the standard legal nonagricultural workweek must not exceed either 40 hours or six days unless there is overtime compensation, which is to be paid at rates graduated according to the number of supplemental hours worked. Domestic workers and certain other categories could work 56 hours per week. The law provides that all employees must be given at least one 24-hour rest period per week. There are no legal provisions regarding compulsory overtime.
The government sets health and safety standards, and in principle workers have the right to remove themselves from hazardous conditions without risking loss of employment; however, this was rarely applied. The law applies to all workers in the formal economy, and the labor code applies to all formal workers regardless of nationality. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
The Labor Office of the Ministry of Labor, Public Service, and Modernization of the Administration is responsible for enforcing labor laws but did not do so effectively. The ILO reported that a significant pay gap between staff in the labor inspectorate and staff in other government inspection departments who receive better remuneration (such as tax inspectors or education inspectors) led to attrition of personnel. The number of labor inspectors, however, was sufficient for the labor force. The ILO also reported that the labor inspectorate was subject to undue influence by employers and the government, thereby reducing the effectiveness of inspection activity.
The majority of the working population labored in the informal sector, primarily in subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry. According to the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CGTM), only 25 percent of workers filled positions accorded regular pay.
Despite the law, labor unions pointed to conditions approaching forced labor in several sectors, including the food processing industry. In these sectors workers did not have contracts or receive pay stubs. Their salaries were below the official minimum wage, and they worked in unfavorable conditions. They occasionally did not receive pay for several months.
Working conditions in the fishing industry were similarly difficult. Commercial fishermen reportedly often exceeded 40 hours of work per week without receiving overtime pay. Additionally, some factory workers employed by fish-processing plants and boat manufacturers did not receive contracts guaranteeing the terms of their employment. Government inspections of fishing vessels, processing plants, and boat factories remained rare.
Violations of minimum wage or overtime laws were frequent in many sectors but more common in the informal economy, which includes domestic service, street vending, artisanal fishing, garbage collection, bus fare collection, donkey-cart driving, apprenticeship, auto repair, and other similar types of employment. According to the CGTM, the National Agency of Social Security registered 187 workplace fatalities or injuries during the year, comparable with previous years.