Mauritania, with a population of 1,780,000, encompasses a large amount of territory, most of which is made up of the Sahara desert. The country has a coastline along the Atlantic Ocean. In the southern part of the country, along the Senegal River, the climate is Sahelian, and the economy primarily agricultural. There are two dominant ethnic groups in Mauritania: the Moors (of Arab origin) and the black Mauritanians (Pulaar, Soninké and Wolof). Until 1989 these two groups lived together in peace, but since then, problems have arisen, with some charging that there is a process of arabization of the population.
The main economic activity in the country is fishing, and there is also some mining. The potential exists for a greater future reliance on agriculture, as a result of large dams along the Senegal River. The current economic situation, however, is not good, and there is a lot of unemployment among the youth.
A one-party regime has ruled Mauritania since independence. No other political parties were allowed, and there was no freedom of expression. Arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions occur regularly. Several persons arrested and detained without trial have died in prison. In 1989, as a result of killings of Senegalese peasants in the Senegal River region, riots took place in both Senegal and Mauritania. These riots provided an opportunity for Mauritanian authorities to send around 12,000 black Mauritanians to Senegal, where they remain in refugee camps. Mauritanian authorities refuse to recognize their citizenship or allow them to return to Mauritania.
In 1992 the government permitted a multi-party system to develop, and several political parties formed. However, the opposition has claimed that there was massive fraud during the 1992 elections, and the 1993 municipal elections. There is now freedom of the press, and newspapers report that they have suffered little harassment from the government.
The impression now is that Mauritanian authorities want to proceed with arabization of the country. Arabic is now compulsory in schools, and is the only language taught in nearly 80% of the schools. Black Mauritanians are not Arabs and do not want their children to study in a language that is not their own, but to date the authorities have not changed this policy.
Human rights activists cite instances of restriction on the freedom of movement of certain populations, mainly in the Senegal River region, who are harassed by police and the army when they travel to other regions. Human rights groups continue to denounce illegal arrests and arbitrary detentions.
HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS
There are a few NGOS working in human rights, but they do not normally receive official recognition. Some activists have been arrested several times in the past, and some still receive threats. Recently officials arrested the President of one organization. NGOs believe the government tolerates them so that it can project a positive image to the world, but that they are not really accepted. At the moment the groups feel a bit more secure, but are unsure of how long that situation will last. A feeling of unease exists in the country due to the belief that the government intends to arabize the country.
The Association Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (AMDH) was created in 1991, but has not received official recognition by the authorities.
AMDH's mandate is to promote and protect human rights, together with monitoring of human rights violations.
Members of AMDH are university teachers, students, lawyers, high school teachers, and others. The organization has no paid staff, and uses the office of a member of its Executive as its headquarters.
AMDH was created at a time when the three main areas of human rights violations were the mass killings of black Mauritanian soldiers, deportation of soldiers and members of the press to the desert, and massive repatriation of Mauritanians from Senegal. With respect to the killings of the soldiers, AMDH launched a press campaign and international action to denounce the killings and request a commission of inquiry. The inquiry took place, but those found responsible remain unpunished; the government has passed an amnesty for those involved.
As the result of efforts by organizations around the world, those deported to the desert were allowed to return. AMDH set up a medical commission to examine the victims. AMDH members who are lawyers took victims' cases to court. However, the amnesty law has meant that those responsible have not been prosecuted. AMDH has, as a consequence, launched a campaign for repeal of the law.
Mauritanians who have been repatriated are living in very bad conditions, and the authorities have refused to help them. AMDH has opened a legal advice center for them, and provides humanitarian assistance.
AMDH also undertakes human rights fact-finding, investigates complaints received, issues press releases, and sponsors press campaigns if the authorities fail to respond to the initial press release. AMDH also works with the human rights commissions of the political parties, and alerts international partners to situations in the country.
The Comité de Solidarité avec les Victimes de la Répression en Mauritanie (CSVRM) was created following a series of protests of Mauritanian women in the streets of Nouakchott. Between September 1990 and March 1991 some 500 black Mauritanian soldiers were arrested and deported without trial, while others were killed. Authorities regularly harassed the black population. A group of women reacted by marching in the streets. Following the march, they formed CSVRM in May 1991. They have not yet filed for official recognition, but intend to do so shortly.
CSVRM's main objective is to help victims recover their rights.
Members of CSVRM are all women, literate and illiterate. The organization has no paid staff and no office, which leads to organizational problems.
In the beginning CSVRM's main activities included public demonstrations--sit-ins, marches, press releases, etc. Once human rights violations became known outside the country, the organization started to conduct investigations into mass violations and publish the results. It continues to do this, but its chief activity has been to lead a national and international campaign for the repeal of the amnesty law.
CSVRM acts as the voice for the Association des Veuves (Association of Widows) and the Association des Rescapés de la Répression (Association of Survivors of Repression), two organizations working to have victims' rights recognized.
The Ligue Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (Mauritanian League for Human Rights) (LMDH) was formed in 1986 by a group of lawyers and professionals, receiving official recognition in the same year. In the beginning, LMDH, then the only human rights NGO, was highly respected in the country and internationally. Nowadays, however, the independence of the organization from the government is questioned. Only the President represents LMDH, and the rest of the organization does not appear to be functioning.
LMDH's objective is the promotion and protection of human rights.
Members of LMDH are lawyers, doctors, human rights activists, etc. The organization has no paid staff and no office.
LMDH has denounced murders on the part of the military and the deportation of others together with journalists. It has asked the government to open an inquiry into these events, and the government has agreed to do so. The government has also accepted, in principle, the indemnification of families of the victims. LMDH believes that, as a result of a noticeable orientation towards democratization, it is possible to hold talks with the government, and tries to use this opportunity, without at the same time being tolerant of government violations.
- Seny Diagne
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