U.N. Recognizes Plight of Slaves in Africa; U.S. Must Do More

On December 10, 2013, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights awarded one of six coveted U.N. Prizes in the Field of Human Rights to Biram Dah Abeid, founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), which works to end the centuries-old practice of slavery in his native Mauritania. The United Nation's recognition is a positive step for bringing to light the continuing practice of slavery in Mauritania and for supporting courageous human rights defenders like Dah Abeid. Nevertheless, if this terrible scourge is finally to be eradicated, much remains to be done to promote the work of anti-slavery activists and protect and support survivors.

As legal director at a non-profit organization for immigrants in Washington D.C., I had seen and heard of persecution around the globe, but it wasn't until I met "Ibrahima," an African male in his mid-20s, that I came to understand the depth of the slavery problem in Africa "Me Mauritania. Mauritania slaves." As he said the word "slaves," he pointed to himself. Ibrahima had previously applied for asylum, but the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services' (USCIS) Asylum Office had denied his application. Ibrahima was facing removal from the U.S. and he was forced to confront the general lack of knowledge of the continuing existence of slavery in Africa, which is in fact alive and thriving in Western Africa.

Communicating with Ibrahima was difficult. I only began to understand his suffering when he lifted his shirt to show me his torso: entirely covered in scars that could only have been caused by a whip. Like his parents, and their parents before them, Ibrahima and his siblings were born into slavery in the vast desert near Rosso, Mauritania. Ibrahima spoke of the unbearable heartache of permanent separation that he and his family would suffer when their masters would give his sisters away to their friends as wedding gifts.

The masters that owned Ibrahima and his family were semi-nomadic goat herders that traveled seasonally through the desert in search of water holes and grazing areas for the animals. As Ibrahima recounted, he and the other male slaves would rise before dawn to take the animals out to graze. They would be gone all day, with nothing in their bellies but the meager rations from the night before, and with a single canteen of water to sustain them in the scorching desert. If an animal strayed off and they returned home short, the masters severely whipped and beat them and then forced them to roam the desert for days without food or water until they found and returned the wayward goat.

Ibrahima and his family never received any pay whatsoever for their labor. They were slaves in the truest sense of the word. While the masters lived in expansive, luxurious tents, Ibrahima and his family slept in worn and tattered ones that provided little protection from the elements. They wore discarded rags and fashioned together flip-flops from pieces of their masters' discarded shoes. The children received no education and it was a source of great shame for Ibrahima that he could not so much as write his name.

After flat out denying the existence of slavery within its borders for many years, in 2013 the government of Mauritania finally began to tentatively acknowledge that the practice continues to persist. To be sure, it remains a highly sensitive issue and government officials balk when it is brought to the international stage. For example, during a panel discussion at the U.N. that immediately followed Tuesday's award ceremony, a representative of Mauritania's Human Rights Commission reported that Mauritania had lodged a formal complaint with the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights for selecting Dah Abeid to receive the 2013 Prize.

Due to the government's stance, and because the government metes out harsh punishments upon anyone who attempts to investigate or report on the phenomenon, reliable figures about the prevalence of slavery are impossible to come by. Nonetheless, advocates estimate that 10-20% of Mauritania's population of 3.4 million are slaves, which amounts to somewhere between 340,000 and 680,000 people.

On the books, slavery in Mauritania no longer exists. The country abolished the practice in 1981 and in 2007 passed legislation to criminalize slavery. Nevertheless, the new law and government denial have done equally little to alter the plight of slaves. To date, only one person has been convicted of owning slaves, in 2011, and there are no cases currently pending. Moreover, in 2011, the government invested a measly $14,300 to reduce poverty among former slaves.

Ibrahima is one of a small, but growing number of truly courageous Mauritanians who risked his life by breaking free from his masters and claiming his freedom. Ibrahima did so with the help of IRA activists, who risking their own lives, would visit Ibrahima and his family either under the cover of darkness or during the day when they were alone in the pastures with the goats. They encouraged him and, when he had made up his mind, orchestrated his escape. Ibrahima joined IRA and for nearly two years worked to free his family and others. Sadly, Ibrahima's efforts nearly killed him and all but one of his siblings remain in slavery today. Like many of Mauritania's present-day slaves, Ibrahima's parents have steadfastly refused to leave because they are just too afraid. In a country where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Ibrahima's parents are afraid they will either fail in their attempt to escape and suffer severe consequences, or succeed only to later die of starvation. Their masters, at least, keep them alive.

As recognized by the United Nations last week, Biram Dah Abeid has worked tirelessly to raise awareness and to garner global support for truly abolishing slavery and all of its pernicious effects in Mauritania. According to Dah Abeid, European governments have engaged the Mauritanian government on this issue and were instrumental in securing his release in 2012 after Mauritanian authorities arrested and detained him for four months for protesting. In August of this year, Ireland's president honored Dah Abeid with that country's "Front Line Defenders Award." What is the U.S.'s role in abolishing slavery in Mauritania?

While the U.S. State Department identifies the existence of slavery, the government has only recently begun to investigate this fundamental violation of basic human rights and consider strategies for addressing it. The fact is, Mauritania is an ally of the U.S. in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the U.S. supplies Mauritania with money and arms, as well as trains it soldiers. President Obama, who has oft invoked the words of Abraham Lincoln and spoken passionately about Nelson Mandela's enduring legacy, has yet to speak publicly on the cause of Mauritania's abolitionists.

Nonetheless, Dah Abeid remains hopeful that the U.S. government and the American people will stand behind Mauritania's abolitionists. Since his last meetings at the White House and the State Department, U.S. Embassy officials in Mauritania's capitol have held meetings with a number of domestic activists. This week Dah Abeid will again meet with top State Department Officials. Momentum, it seems, may finally be starting to build.

Both the United States and the international community must take the opportunity of this week's UN Prize to further shine the spotlight on the ongoing human rights tragedy in Mauritania. There is no time like the present for the American government to take more of a leadership role by speaking out publicly against this issue, by demanding that the Mauritanian government recognize that slavery remains a serious problem, and by insisting that it arrest and punish those violating its own anti-slavery laws. The United States must also work to provide moral and financial support to Dah Abeid and groups like IRA.

To send a message to world leaders demanding that they take action on this issue, visit The Abolition Institute's website at www.stoppingslavery.org. For other ways to get involved or to donate to organizations working to free people like Ibrahima and his family and to provide shelter and job training for former slaves, please visit here.