Mauritania’s human rights record examined by UN Member States

February 04, 2021

During its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on January 19, 2021, Mauritania received over 250 recommendations from nearly 100 United Nations Member States on issues including the right to life, gender-based violence and the prohibition of slavery. Mauritania also received recommendations on how to safeguard the peaceful exercise of fundamental rights, including freedoms of expression, association and assembly. The persistence of discriminatory practices as well as the lack of a long-term resolution of the “Passif humanitaire” were also addressed during the review.

Magharebia, licensed under CC BY 2.0

On January 19, 2021, Mauritania was examined before the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) during the country’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a peer-review mechanism by which UN Member States make recommendations to the country under review on how to improve its human rights record in light of the country’s international obligations. Mauritania is then required to notify the HRC of the recommendations it wishes to accept and those it rejects during the upcoming 47th session of the HRC in June-July 2021. Ahead of the review, MENA Rights Group and the Cadre de concertation des rescapés de Mauritanie (CCR-M) submitted a shadow report, containing a list of recommendations, which were circulated among the reviewing states.

Freedom of expression

Although press offences have been decriminalised, some activities related to the exercise of freedom of expression are still restricted, prompting Switzerland to urge the authorities to amend the Penal Code and the legislation on information and communication in order to bring them in line with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Moreover, the Penal Code continues to criminalise activities related to the exercise of freedom of speech, such as apostasy and defamation. The Netherlands therefore recommended that Mauritania “remove from legislation any identification of blasphemy and apostasy as a crime”. It must be recalled that Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a Mauritanian blogger, was held for five-and-a-half years for blasphemy after he denounced caste discrimination in the country. He was sentenced to death in 2014, before a higher court reduced his sentence on appeal. When Mkhaitir was still in detention, article 306 of the Penal Code was amended as to allow for the substitution of a prison term instead of the death penalty if the offender promptly repents.

Right to life

Several States urged Mauritania to abolish capital punishment for all crimes, while others, including Australia, recommended the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OP2-ICCPR), aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. While noting that the country observes a de facto moratorium since 1987, the need to “consider initiating processes to abolish the death penalty, to commute the sentences of prisoners currently on death row to imprisonment and to remove from national legislation all references to stoning as a method of execution”, was raised also by Brazil.

Freedom of peaceful assembly and association

While the rights to peaceful assembly and association are protected under the Constitution, they are restricted in law and in practice despite timid attempts to ensure that Mauritania’s legislation complies with international standards.

In this regard, New Zealand pressed Mauritania to “provide a constructive and safe environment for peaceful assembly and freedom of expression to enable civil society, non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders to conduct their activities”. In fact, the 1964 Law of Associations requires associations to obtain formal permission to operate legally and gives the Ministry of Interior far-reaching powers to refuse such permission on vague grounds such as “anti-national propaganda” or exercising “an unwelcome influence on the minds of the people.” 

A draft law, replacing the 1964 law, is currently pending before the parliament. Although the text contains some vaguely defined provisions, such as the obligation to comply with the “principles enshrined in the Constitution, the constants and values of the Republic, public order, good morals”, it would move away from a stringent licensing regime to a notification system. If adopted, NGOs working on issues that are considered to be controversial by the authorities, such as slavery, discrimination, or the right to truth, could finally operate legally.

Regarding the respect of the right of peaceful assembly, Law No. 73-008 on public meetings still stipulates that “any public meeting must be the subject of a declaration to the administrative authorities”. This authorisation regime was further confirmed by a 2016 declaration of the Ministry of the Interior stating that “without the prior authorisation of the Hakem (Prefect), it is strictly forbidden to organise any show, conference, ceremony, party or other event to which the public is admitted”. 

On that basis, the authorities have continued to crackdown on peaceful protests organised by human rights groups since the last UPR, including by refusing to authorise peaceful assemblies and using excessive force against demonstrators who did not notify or seek authorisation.

The “Passif humanitaire”

Regarding the issue of the right to truth and the fight against impunity, Belgium was the only country to address the lack of accountability for the crimes committed between the mid-1980s and early 1990s. During this period, commonly referred as “Passif humanitaire”, large sections of the Afro-Mauritanian minority were subjected to serious human rights violations, including summary executions, enforced disappearance and torture.

Belgium thus recommended that Mauritania “takes necessary measures to repeal the law 1993 (No 9323), on amnesty and create an independent mechanism for justice and reconciliation with the power to conduct investigations into past crimes”. The law in question grants amnesty to members of the security forces for all crimes they may have committed between 1989 and 1992. The law further prevents accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations committed during that period, and does not allow access to effective remedies for victims and their families. 

Although structural racism reached its peak during the “Passif humanitaire”, little progress has been made since to tackle discrimination experienced by the Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian communities. Spain thus urged the authorities to “carry out an information and public awareness campaign, including in the educational system, in order to combat the social-cultural prejudices that undermine the efforts of the Mauritanian government in the area of fighting racial and ethnic discrimination”.

Next steps

Mauritania has until the 47th session of the Human Rights Council – which will run from June 21 to July 9, 2021 – to provide responses to the recommendations it received during its UPR. The authorities will then commit themselves to implementing accepted recommendations ahead of its next review, which will take place in November 2025.

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