The Country Where Slavery Is Still Normal

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How a perfect storm of ethnic divisions, natural disaster, and political turmoil made Mauritania a 21st-century slave state

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Child slaves in Mauritania / Reuters

The north African nation of Mauritania has tried three times to abolish slavery within its borders, most recently in 2007, and three times it has failed. Though the most recent effort established tougher legal penalties -- 10 years prison time for holding slaves, two years for "promoting" slavery -- the practice remains pervasive, with an estimated half million Mauritanians enslaved, about 20 percent of the population. Mauritanian slaves are forbidden from owning property, a last name, or legal custody of their own children.

Paradoxically, the government's official position is that slavery has been abolished, putting it in the awkward position of trying to fight slavery while simultaneously maintaining that it doesn't exist. Most recently, this has meant passing new laws to regulate the working conditions of "domestic workers." The move, which seeks to improve living conditions and curb violence against slaves, suggests that the Mauritanian government -- troubled by a recent series of coups, distracted by a struggling economy and by Chinese exploitation of the country's abundant fishing resources -- seems to have resigned itself to fighting the harm of slavery rather than the practice itself. But there's a deeper question: how is it that slavery, today, in the 21st-century, can still persist as not just pervasive but normal?

Mauritania could have been designed to be a modern-day slave state, so perfect are the conditions for entrenching this cruel habit. An artificial creation of the end of colonialism, the European-drawn, largely arbitrary borders cut across ethnic groups that are black African, black Arab or Berber, and white Arab or Berber. French colonialism rapidly centralized much of what was once a heavily nomadic population, forcing ethnic groups that had once been separated by geography to coexist and to compete. In the 1970s, widespread droughts forced many of the country's farmers and rural peoples into cities, creating new classes of destitute and jobless citizens who have been unable to adapt to this new reality. Because 50 percent of the economy is still based in agriculture, urban job opportunities are scarce. Lacking other options, faced with an economy unable to help them and an ethnic hierarchy that tells them they are worth less than their white-faced or Arab counterparts, they become slaves. Many of the displaced were children in need of a guardian. Many of those guardians became masters. The cycle repeated in the late 1980s, when an estimated 70,000 black Africans were expelled from the country, leaving behind masses of children, many of whom were enslaved.

Slavery is self-perpetuating. A first-generation slave is a desperate man, woman, or, most often, child who accepts degradation in exchange for survival. A second-generation slave knows nothing else. Though Mauritania's post-colonial struggles have perpetuated and entrenched the practice, it began generations earlier. As in Saudi Arabia, which did not emancipate its slaves until 1967, slavery was a function of extreme wealth discrepency that divided along ethnic lines between Arab and African, skin color lines between white and black, and often between sedentary and nomadic communities, the latter of which lacked recourse for recovering its children abducted into slavery. In Mauritania, the practice began with 8th century Arab colonists who took black slaves. As the number of slaves increased -- first by the ravages of European colonialism, then by the crises of the 1970s and 1980s -- the practice became the norm, which made it both too pervasive and too accepted for legislation to simply overturn.

Though a number of Mauritanians hold slaves, there is a large, popular movement in the country that finds slavery just as abhorrent as did 19th century northeastern Americans, and as does most of the world today. Several anti-slavery groups formed in the 1970s to combat (and, they hope, overturn) the practice: El Hor, Arabic for "free man"; In'itaq, Arabic for "emancipation; and SOS Esclaves, French for SOS Slaves. But their efforts to campaign against slavery have largely been stifled by the government, which has changed hands repeatedly over the past decade. Because the country's various coup-based military leaders have so feared for their own survival, they have either ignored or suppressed anti-slavery groups as dissenters and potential threats to their rule.

It will not be enough for Mauritania to legally forbid slavery; ending the practice would require a concerted and aggressive campaign to emancipate slaves and to help the many homeless children out of their de facto slavery. This would be expensive, alienate the wealthy Mauritanians who own slaves at a time when the regime needs all the support it can get, and distract the government from its fights for survival and against terrorism. Of course, ending slavery is still within Mauritania's interests -- apart from the humanitarian travesty, slavery restricts large parts of the population from adding more to the economy than manual labor. But it is not very high on the government's to-do list.

As in much of Africa, Mauritania badly needs foreign investment, but is increasingly relying on China, which has little interest in pushing it to end slavery, rather than on the West, which clearly ranks humanitarian concerns a bit higher. Over the past year, the U.S. has come to realize that supporting democratization and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa is within our own best, long-term interests, allying us with the Arab popular movements that seem poised to take over leadership of a regime long dominated by easily bought dictators. In a poor nation like Mauritania, that dilemma would seem to be much easier: we have few reasons to support the status quo, and many economic levers (the domestic fishing industry badly needs development, for example) to change it. For now, however, Mauritania's thousands of slaves can do little but work and hope.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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