Editor's note: Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery. This story is part of a CNN special report, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold.”
By John D. Sutter, CNN
(CNN) - Slavery in Mauritania has persisted for centuries - and it wasn't until 2007 that the West African country actually made the act of owning another human being and forcing him or her to work without pay a crime.
To date, only one person has been convicted on slavery charges in Mauritania - and some activists say little is being done to pressure the government to end slavery. In part, they say, that's because the United States has interests in working with the Mauritanian government to fight a branch of al Qaeda in the region. It might upset the balance of that agreement if the U.S. also urged Mauritania to tackle slavery. Two Mauritanian government ministers denied slavery exists in CNN interviews.
But CNN spoke recently with the U.S. Ambassador to Mauritania, who painted a different picture of the situation. Jo Ellen Powell says slavery is very real in Mauritania today. She described the practice as "completely unacceptable and abhorrent," and said the American embassy is working diligently to help put an end to slavery in the Saharan nation.The following is an edited transcript:
What is your stance on slavery in Mauritania?
We certainly recognize that Mauritania still has a problem with slavery. It is a real problem, one that we address pretty much continuously at every level of government and civil society. And we continue to advocate for the kind of change in society’s cultural expectations and norms that will, I hope, one day help Mauritania recognize that (slavery) is completely unacceptable and abhorrent. We participate with the UN office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, with UNICEF and with others. We partner with them to develop programs and fund programs that will send a message that slavery is not acceptable. We are helping UNICEF build schools for children who are in conditions of involuntary servitude.
What else needs to be done for the practice of slavery to be ended?
The government has taken some pretty important steps recently to prosecute cases on slavery. In the last year, they’ve even secured their first conviction of an individual on charges of slavery. So this is an important step. Denial is a lot easier than confronting a problem like this. The society also has an important role to play. And by reaching out to both the government and civil society we can get the message across in multiple directions.
Is that really a turning point? Some anti-slavery activists see that conviction of a slave owner as a bittersweet victory because it was so difficult for them to get the government to hear that case.
It was a bittersweet victory. I hope it was a turning point. One case makes it hard to say whether this is a tipping point or not. But it is an important first step. We should be continuing, and are continuing, to push for the government to recognize its obligations to act when allegations of slavery are brought to their attention and, even more, to loudly advocate that this is not an acceptable practice in this century - anywhere.
Have you been involved in any of the cases before the courts? Has the U.S. stepped in to help aid in the prosecution of accused slave owners?
Not in the courtroom. Our efforts are with prosecutors, with activist organizations, NGOs and with the government itself. But we have not been present in the courtroom.
Have you met people who are enslaved or were recently enslaved? If so, can you talk about those experiences?
I have met both with activists and with people who have described to me some fairly rigorous conditions of involuntary servitude. As you can imagine, their stories are pretty heartrending.
What it was like for you personally when you met people who had been through those things?
The first reaction, I suppose, is a combination of sympathy and horror for what people have had to go through. The cases I have encountered haven’t necessarily been of people in shackles, but they are primarily children who have been deprived of an opportunity for an education and who know no other life than working in the house of somebody else for little remuneration and with no personal liberty. And that’s very sad.
Why do you think this practice has persisted in Mauritania when it was abolished in most of the rest of the world so much earlier?
It is something that is deeply engrained in the culture of the country. It is part of the tribal relationship. The tribe owner takes care of the extended members of the tribe. And perhaps some people still honestly believe it when they say they are fulfilling an obligation to members of their tribe and their extended “family” who are less fortunate than themselves. I think that our real goal is to change how society views this abysmal business and not let people think that they are helping someone by keeping them in a situation of uncompensated servitude. It’s a societal phenomenon that has existed for a long time, and it’s really only going to change fundamentally when society itself says, “This is unacceptable.”
Is there anything people in the U.S. can do either to support Mauritania in its effort to combat slavery or to pressure the country to do more?
I think Americans contribute everyday to the work that those of us in Mauritania are doing. People that support our efforts, people that support the United Nations’ efforts, people that support NGO efforts, people who help get the message across everyday that we live by a higher standard - I hope. And setting that standard, I think, is the best thing anyone can do to show someone else that there is a different and a better way.
So leading by example?
Some anti-slavery activists say the United States’ interests in counter-terrorism efforts outweigh the country’s effort to pressure Mauritania to end slavery - and that the U.S. is not doing enough. How do you respond to that?
We certainly have several interests in Mauritania. Advancing human rights is one of them. And promoting a strong security cooperation to combat transnational terrorism is another, and the two are not mutually exclusive. I don’t think that we will ever do enough until we have eradicated slavery in all its forms everywhere in the world. But it’s not the kind of zero-sum game where doing less in one area means doing more in another. And I think we can only keep up our efforts on both fronts and keep pushing and pushing and plugging away at it.
How do they compare in terms of finances? How much money do we put into counter-terrorism efforts versus into programs that fight slavery?
We certainly put more money globally into counterterrorism efforts, but those efforts are not all just military. We have civil units. We have humanitarian assistance programs. Information teams. So it’s hard to compartmentalize, but we spend a fair amount of money in both efforts and I would caution anyone not to try to use dollars as the best benchmark of commitment or of success.
What are the next tangible steps the Mauritanian government needs to take to end slavery?
The Mauritanian government recently set up a multifaceted watchdog organization designed to combat slavery through information campaigns and through prosecutions. A couple more cases like the recent prosecution that resulted in a conviction are going to be a very powerful way of sending the message to Mauritanian society that this is not something the government or society itself condones. We can continue to try to help local activists and grassroots organizations as well as working through the UN and other partners to provide outlets for Mauritania’s young people. To provide schools and to provide job training. Because ultimately my message to Mauritanians is: Look, Mauritania’s children are your future. And you can invest better in their education than keeping them sweeping floors somewhere or herding goats. Human capital development is something that’s very important to the Mauritanians, and I hope that they get that connection. They’ve got to start giving all Mauritanians access to education. As you probably observed, the slavery affects children, young people and women more than anyone else.