Slavery Battle Turned Upside Down in Mauritania

Even if you haven’t been distracted by the important stories in Sudan and Afghanistan these past weeks, you may have missed this biggest little story out of West Africa. Six anti-Slavery activists are currently on trial in Mauritania for rather dubious charges.  Mauritania – where the rights group SOS Esclaves claims that one-fifth of the population, or about 600,000 people remain as slaves – shows no signs of ever prosecuting citizens for owning slaves under a 2007 law. Instead, Mauritania is jailing anti-slavery activists.

“The ground is the slave’s bed, fire his clothing,” goes a Mauritanian proverb. Here’s a brief highlight about jailed activist Biram Dah Abeid offered by Le Monde via The Guardian. Otherwise, the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) is still covering ths important story better than most other media.

How does a story about the alleged enslavement of up to 600,000 people and the jailing of those few claiming to fight for their freedom get so little attention, especially in a place that has it’s own history of slavery and abolition like the United States?

My own theory is that Mauritania’s role as a former French colony leaves English-language news agencies looking to re-publish French stories rather than developing their own. As for the more important question of why the U.S. and Europe are rarely heard taking on Mauritania’s government about the lack of follow through on the 2007 anti-slavery law, odds are it is because they do not wish to rock relations with an elite relied on as a critical ally in the campaign to counter al-Qaeda in Africa.

Again, the effort to prevent small-scale bombings trumps long-term wide-scale human rights abuses including slavery and torture. Sadly in a world in which global actors act not on widespread persecution but only after people have been killed, enslavement, suffering and painful uncertainty in Mauritania may go on for years.