In November 2013, I attended a meeting in Dakar, Senegal that addressed how to memorialize slavery as part of an African Union Human Rights Memorial. The trip included a visit to Gorée Island, the notorious site from which untold numbers of African were sent to the Americas against their will as part of the calamity that was the transatlantic slave trade. While this form of the trade has ended, one of the great human rights campaigns of all history, de facto slavery still exists. Part of the discussions in Senegal were focused on how to address contemporary forms of slavery. Among the participants at the forum was a small contingent of activists aiming to definitively end slave practices. They argued that our condemnation of historical slavery should be matched with commitment to counter all of its current forms.
One of these presenters was Biram Dah Abeid, President of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) Mauritania, who described Mauritania as “the last slave state in the world.” Today, for his lifelong commitment to ending slavery in Mauritania, Biram is in jail. He was previously arrested for his work in 2010 and 2012. He was also a presidential candidate in Mauritania’s 2014 election and is the winner of multiple awards for his work including the 2013 UN Human Rights Prize. In November 2014, he was taken into police custody during a peaceful anti-slavery march. In January he was sentenced to two years in jail, and in the decision last week, a judge refused to overturn the sentence.
Slavery has assumed many different forms across historical periods and social-economic-political contexts. To capture variations in the core dynamics, citing Kevin Bales, slavery can be defined as: (1) one person completely controlling another (2) violence being used to maintain that control; and (3) that control being used to exploit people economically. But in Mauritania, according to The Global Slavery Index, slavery follows a very old, abusive model whereby a human are treated as the property of other human:
…has the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world; an estimated four percent of the population are enslaved. Slavery is entrenched in Mauritanian society, and its prevalence is perpetuated by tradition. Also known as hereditary or chattel slavery, slave status is inherited generation to generation and is deeply rooted in social castes and the wider social system.
If you’re not sure exactly what this means on a personal level, Biram can provide an example from father’s experience:
My dad, even though he was born and earned his freedom, he got married to a slave woman and had two kids. He wanted to bring his wife far away from them because he could only see her very late at night when her masters were sleeping. He wanted to have his wife with him, and he tried to bring her away from them. But her masters opposed him and brought him to court. The court ruled against my father, saying that his wife was a slave and belonged to her masters. They said, if [the family] wanted to sell her, he could buy his wife because she was just like their cow or their sheep. And he said, OK, in that case I’m going to take my kids. And the judge said that these kids don’t have a father, they only have a “progenitor,” because slavery is transmitted through a mother’s bloodline. So the children were the slaves of this master too.
His father’s experience helps explain why Biram became an anti-slavery activist. And that deep personal commitment is also why, despite the passage of laws against slavery in 2007, Biram has stated he will continue his work until the actual experiences of people in Mauritania match the promise of the law.
The new laws were ratified by those who hold power in Mauritania in order to avoid being sidelined by other nations and to be able to obtain money from the international community. That’s all. But we don’t actually implement them in Mauritania.
From jail, Biram wrote a letter with this statement: