Geneva, Switzerland, Oct 16, 2019 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- Mauritania, the west African nation where slavery remains a widespread practice, is expected to be voted on to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council on Thursday.
According to its website, the UNHRC is “an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.”
The UNHRC membership spaces are allocated according to different regions of the world, with some regions only having as many candidate nations as there are slots to fill. For this election, there are four African countries–Libya, Mauritania, Benin, and Sudan–seeking election to the four spots on the Human Rights Council reserved for African nations. This means that they are essentially guaranteed to be elected to the council on Oct. 17.
Mauritania made slavery illegal in 1981, but did not criminalize the practice of owning slaves until 2007. It was the last country to abolish slavery. According to a 2012 CNN report, only one slave owner had been prosecuted for owning another human being since the practice was made illegal.
While the Mauritanian government officially denies that slavery is ongoing in the country, Mauritanian watchdog groups allege that one out of every two members of the country’s Haratine ethnic minority group are enslaved, and that as many as 20% of the population is enslaved. The exact number of slaves within the country is unclear, and estimates range from 90,000 to 500,000. The Global Slavery Index estimates more than 140,000 people are currently enslaved in the country.
Slavery in the country is most often found being enforced on farms and in homes. According to media reports, slave owners give away people as gifts, and enslaved women are regularly sexually assaulted by their owners.
In a report jointly authored report by UN Watch, the Human Rights Foundation, and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Mauritania, Libya, and Sudan were all rated as “unqualified” for the council, and Benin was evaluated as “questionable.” Libya, Mauritania, and Sudan were criticized for their authoritarian governments, limits on freedom of the press, and for their “negative” UN voting records.
The report singled out Mauritania for its history of corruption, ethnic discrimination by government actors, slavery, human trafficking, child labor, and criminalization of homosexuality. The country’s current president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, was elected in June of this year despite reports of irregularities in the voting process. The country’s internet was shut down to quell protests that erupted after the elections.
In addition to slavery, Mauritania is subjec to a range of other human rights concerns. The United Nations estimates that over one third of Mauritanian women are married before they reach the age of 18, and female genital mutilation is commonplace. Sex outside of marriage is not legal in the country, and women who were raped can face prosecution if they report their assault to the police.
A State Department official told CNA that the U.S. “hopes that ultimately only suitable candidates will be supported and confirmed for election to the Council.”
“We hope that the new members of the Council will follow through on their commitments to improving human rights conditions in their countries,” said the official.
While the election for the African slate is uncontested, a UN voting nation is not required to actually vote for a country to join the UNHRC if it does not wish to.
“Voting nations can and should refrain from electing rights abusers to the UN’s highest human rights body,” said Hillel Neuer of UN Watch.