Mauritania | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


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The Mauritanian government ordered a third political party dissolved in January 2002; officials accused the Action for Change party, which campaigned for greater rights for black Mauritanians and discouraged slavery, of being racist and violent. The Union of Democratic Forces was banned in 2000, and the pro-Iraqi Attali party was banned in 1999 following violent demonstrations against Mauritania's establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel. Mauritania is one of three Arab League states, along with Egypt and Jordan, that has diplomatic relations with Israel, despite domestic criticism. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres visited Mauritania in October 2002. It was the first visit by an Israeli foreign minister since diplomatic ties were established in 1999. Mauritania in 2002 was suffering from a drought that put thousands of people at risk of going hungry.

After nearly six decades of French colonial rule, Mauritania's borders as an independent state were formalized in 1960. A 1978 military coup ended a civilian one-party state led by Moktaar Ould Daddah. He returned to Mauritania in 2001 after more than 20 years in exile. A 1984 internal purge installed Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya as junta chairman. In 1992, Ould Taya won the country's first, and deeply flawed, multiparty election. Ould Taya's Social Democratic Republican Party (PRDS) ruled the country as a de facto one-party state after the main opposition parties boycotted National Assembly elections in 1992 and 1996. The country's narrowly based, authoritarian regime has gradually become liberalized, but most power remains in the hands of the president and a very small elite.

Mauritania's people include the dominant Beydane "white Maurs" of Arab extraction and Haratine "black Maurs" of African descent. Other, non-Muslim, black Africans inhabiting the country's southern frontiers along the Senegal River valley constitute approximately one-third of the population. For centuries, black Africans were subjugated and taken as slaves by both white and black Maurs. Slavery was outlawed in 1980, but remnants persist.

London-based Amnesty International called on the government in 2002 to take steps to end slavery, which the organization said slavery still existed despite its official abolition 20 years ago. Former slaves are discriminated against, and organizations working to eradicate slavery and improve the rights of former slaves and black Mauritanians have been hindered in their work. Some are denied official recognition.

Mauritania is one of the world's poorest countries. Its vast and mostly arid territory has few resources. Much of the country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite that controls an economy based on iron ore exports and fishing. The World Bank and IMF in 2002 granted $1.1 billion in debt relief to Mauritania as part of their "heavily indebted poor countries" initiative.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

In 2001, Mauritanians were, for the first time, permitted to exercise their constitutional right to choose their representatives in relatively open competitive elections. The absence of an independent election commission, state control of broadcasts, harassment of independent print media, and the incumbent's use of state resources to promote his candidacy had devalued Ould Taya's presidential victories in 1992 and 1997.

Mauritania took a step toward political reform in October 2001, when it held municipal and National Assembly elections that included a range of opposition parties. The EU said the polls were smoothly organized and allowed for proper participation in an atmosphere of normalcy and democratic openness. However, the ruling PRDS was the only party to present candidates in every constituency, and the electoral law was modified to ban independent candidates, whose seats mainly went to the PRDS. More than a dozen parties participated in the elections to choose 81 members of the National Assembly. The PRDS won 64 assembly seats, and opposition parties won 17. In the municipal polls, the opposition won 15 percent of available posts, its strongest showing to date.

Mauritania's judicial system is heavily influenced by the government. Many decisions are shaped by Sharia (Islamic law), especially in family and civil matters. A judicial reform program is under way. Prison conditions in Mauritania are harsh, but the construction of a new prison has reduced overcrowding and improved treatment. In June 2002, two human rights organizations and a Mauritanian-born French-man sued Mauritanian police for alleged torture. The suit said authorities accused the man of links with a banned political opposition group and tortured him after he arrived in Mauritania to visit his family.

Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate, including human rights and antislavery groups. However, a handful of black African activist groups and Islamist parties are banned. The banned El Hor (Free Man) movement promotes black rights, while widespread discrimination against blacks continues. Although slavery does not officially exist, a few thousand blacks still live in conditions of servitude. A government campaign against the mainly black southern part of the country in the late 1980s culminated in a massive deportation of blacks to Senegal, and relations between the two countries remain strained.

Freedom of association is restricted. The law requires all recognized political parties and NGOs to apply to the local prefect for permission to hold large meetings or assemblies. Prepublication censorship, arrests of journalists, and seizures and bans of newspapers devalue constitutional guarantees of free expression. The state owns the only two daily newspapers and monopolizes nearly all broadcast media. Independent publications openly criticize the government, but all publications must be submitted to the Interior Ministry prior to distribution. The constitution forbids dissemination of reports deemed to "attack the principles of Islam or the credibility of the state, harm the general interest, or disturb public order and security."

Mauritania is an Islamic state in which, by statute, all citizens are Sunni Muslims who may not possess other religious texts or enter non-Muslim households. The right to worship in another faith, however, is generally tolerated. Christians and non-Mauritanian Shiite Muslims are permitted to worship privately, and some churches operate openly.

Societal discrimination against women is widespread, but is improving. Under Sharia, a woman's testimony is given only half the weight of a man's. Legal protections regarding property and equality of pay are usually respected only in urban areas among the educated elite. At least one-quarter of women undergo female genital mutilation. The government has intensive media and education campaigns against this practice.

Approximately one-fourth of Mauritania's workers serve in the small formal (business) sector. The constitution provides for freedom of association and the right of citizens to unionize and bargain for wages. All workers except members of the military and police are free to join unions. The right to strike is limited by arbitration.