U.S. ambassador to Mauritania: Slavery is 'completely unacceptable and abhorrent'
March 17th, 2012
09:36 PM ET

U.S. ambassador to Mauritania: Slavery is 'completely unacceptable and abhorrent'

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?

Yes, absolutely.

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.

soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. Zenobia Todd

    Why does the American society treat the blacks like they arrive in this country with a suitcase. They built this country and still have no wealth, the land was stolen from those that had land. When the immigrants came to this country with a suitcase they still are dening the blacks equal rights?

    March 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  2. Maha

    State Department should not look any farther to find the truth...right there in Washington DC "Islamic Republic Of Mauritanian Embassy". take a look at that so called embassy where there are sevants all black..or Harateen.

    Most Bithan (white moore) in USA have or had slaves in Mauritania, some consider having slaves is (rich)...perhaps US should take a stand a clear one.


    March 21, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  3. andro

    we are united with one god ,one love ,one government and one country. let there be God, let there be love, let there be president and kings and let there be mauritania.

    March 23, 2012 at 3:29 am | Reply
  4. Mohammed

    Slavery in this world again is unbelievable. Any society that try to subjugate it people to perpetual penury, servitude and economic peril is repurgnance to natural justice, good conscious and therefore not acceptable. Human right should rise up against it. American action amount to hypocrite.

    March 26, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
  5. Thomas

    ECOWAS and the AFRICAN UNION should persistently investigate this happenings in Mauritania and encourage this country to move away from such barbaric practices. This is a concern for us all

    March 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
    • Asih

      Interesting development, ieendd! But I am not sure if that is the best strategy for CNN: isn’t it the easier thing to do, to separate citizen contributions even more from the journalists’ work? Will the content in the new site make a difference or be a worthy addition to CNN’s professional reporting? I'm skeptical.

      April 9, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  6. Jessica

    or tear TMZ a new one for getting it wrong). Yesterday's etnevs were the perfect example of process journalism in the Twitter era, as each news outlet gradually updated their stories with the most recent facts (really more first

    April 9, 2012 at 8:34 am | Reply
  7. Esmeralday Handinl

    Thanks a lot for sharing this with all people you really realize what you are speaking approximately! Bookmarked. Kindly also consult with my website =). We will have a link change contract among us!

    July 14, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  8. web site

    Good post. I just stumbled upon your topic and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your posts. web site

    August 17, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Reply

    slavery still exist and going be exist in mauritania the must members of goverment they are slave owner they not going do nothing about i just thank john for your time and effort you doing for us

    September 11, 2012 at 1:11 am | Reply
  10. detectives privados coslada

    detectives privados arganda del rey


    December 11, 2020 at 9:07 pm | Reply
  11. Eun Lajara

    Wow, nice website you have here. I hope you will keep updating. Regards TJ


    December 20, 2020 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  12. make money online today

    Earn 100 commissions of up to 900+ dollars DAILY. 90 Second Set Up – Beta Tested Proven 24-7 AUTOPILOT Income – 100 New Income System Never Before Seen. More details: https://bit.ly/2YfQFcC


    December 26, 2020 at 9:30 am | Reply
  13. Marion Macmahon

    Interested in more information. How can I contact you?


    January 3, 2021 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  14. Sook Urness

    Interested in more information. How can I contact you?


    January 5, 2021 at 4:34 pm | Reply
  15. Ginny Montooth

    Thanks so much the information. I love sucking dick btw hmu


    January 7, 2021 at 8:55 pm | Reply
  16. Humberto Simor

    And how do you garner a lot of traffic?. . I want to make a blog regarding my "adventure" with a little thing people like to call the entertainment industry. I want to include photos, experiences tips, and stories is that enough or?? And should i make my on blog or use something like blogger or flat press?.


    January 7, 2021 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  17. Chester Hoes


    January 11, 2021 at 1:08 am | Reply
  18. Frances Hasper

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you've put in writing this blog. I am hoping the same high-grade site post from you in the upcoming also. Actually your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own web site now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings fast. Your write up is a good example of it.


    January 11, 2021 at 1:19 am | Reply
  19. Duncan Dimitt

    Definitely believe that which you said. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the internet the easiest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get annoyed while people consider worries that they just do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and also defined out the whole thing without having side effect , people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks


    January 11, 2021 at 11:53 pm | Reply
  20. Robin Peterschick


    January 21, 2021 at 12:52 am | Reply
  21. Logan Minhas


    January 21, 2021 at 5:08 am | Reply
  22. Ryan Oflaherty

    Do you want get more social network traffic, likes, and retweets? SMM Supreme uses his own panel system to generate social media traffic to any website. Best Quality-Price Ratio on the market with 714928 orders until now. – Facebook Fan Page Likes: $4.50/1000 – Instagram Followers: $0.78/1000 – Youtube Views: $1.62/1000 – Twitter followers: $2.10/1000 – Paypal Deposit – Payeer Deposit – Automatic order processing – 30 minutes to send to customers


    January 23, 2021 at 1:10 am | Reply
  23. Marco Cuppernell

    Wow, incredible blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is magnificent, as well as the content!


    January 24, 2021 at 3:34 pm | Reply
  24. Georgene Vandevort

    Social network traffic Facebook likes Twitter Followers Instagram Followers and much more


    January 27, 2021 at 12:20 am | Reply
  25. Leopoldo Nimmo

    Best Marketing Services – Cheapest on Market. SMM Supreme is the Top 5 Best Social Media Website in the World. Best Quality-Price Ratio on the market with 714,928 orders until now. – Facebook Fan Page Likes for $4.50/1000 – Instagram Followers for $0.78/1000 – Youtube Views: $1.62/1000 – Twitter followers: $2.10/1000 – Paypal Deposit – Bitcoin Deposit – Fast order processing – 1 Hour Delivery (Click on the link in the profile for more details)


    January 27, 2021 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  26. Jdbxcoemn

    mens generic viagra viagra online bestellen org how can i get viagra free http://llviabest.com/ – viagra with overnight shipping ’

    January 27, 2021 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  27. Lbgcoemn

    365 pills, viagra for premature eja canadian viagra online viagra on line http://genqpviag.com/ – best price viagra no presription ’

    January 28, 2021 at 6:04 am | Reply
  28. Adrian Rump


    January 28, 2021 at 10:01 pm | Reply
  29. Vince Mendias


    January 28, 2021 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  30. Fqhhcoemn

    ordering prescriptions from canada legally online pharmacies in usa canadian prescription

    February 3, 2021 at 11:42 am | Reply
  31. KbcxGafe

    viagra online canadian pharmacy hormones humana online pharmacy

    February 4, 2021 at 12:50 am | Reply
  32. Ahkdcoemn

    viagra canada cheap drugs online pharmacy in canada

    February 5, 2021 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  33. Fvfcephes

    brand viagra offers buy dapoxetine viagra usa coupons for viagra

    February 6, 2021 at 5:17 am | Reply
  34. Nncsephes

    printable viagra coupons viagra price per pill generic viagra

    February 6, 2021 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  35. Jbnbguell

    online canadian pharmacy canadian pharmacy meds compare rx prices

    February 7, 2021 at 10:21 am | Reply
  36. Jbbvcoemn

    canadian prescriptions online the canadian pharmacy canadian online pharmacy reviews

    February 8, 2021 at 8:49 am | Reply
  37. Lbsxcoemn

    approved canadian pharmacies online generic viagra prescription drug price comparison

    February 9, 2021 at 6:13 am | Reply
  38. Fqbbcoemn

    cash advance montgomery alabama capital payday loan cash advance til payday

    February 10, 2021 at 9:41 am | Reply
  39. KvaxGafe

    western union payday advance payday loans lorain county ohio southwest credit card cash advance fee

    February 10, 2021 at 11:22 pm | Reply
  40. Ahbzcoemn

    payday cash advance youngstown ohio cash payday scarborough small cash loans fast

    February 12, 2021 at 11:22 pm | Reply
  41. Fbsgephes

    , cialis cialis canada pharmacy no prescription required cialis online 2nd day shipping

    February 13, 2021 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  42. Jbnvguell

    payday loans romford payday loans direct lender uk no credit check sky bet cash advance fee

    February 14, 2021 at 4:02 am | Reply
  43. Nbnhephes

    generic viagra australia paypal http://vigedon.com/ sildenafil generic drug cost

    February 14, 2021 at 6:54 am | Reply
  44. Jbbncoemn

    how early should you take cialis tableta cialis cialis chiclete

    February 16, 2021 at 6:03 am | Reply
  45. Profitable-Digital-Marketing Strategy-and-Plan

    I will drive 20000 google organic visitors using targeted keywords: https://www.seoclerk.com/Traffic/833336/I-will-drive-20000-google-organic-visitors-using-targeted-keywords


    February 16, 2021 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  46. Labxcoemn

    why does cialis cause muscle pain rui products liquid cialis typical cost of cialis

    February 17, 2021 at 3:04 am | Reply
  47. SocialMedia Services2021

    Best Marketing Services – Cheapest on Market. SMM Supreme is the Top 5 Best Social Media Website in the World. Best Quality-Price Ratio on the market with 714,928 orders until now. – Facebook Fan Page Likes for $4.50/1000 – Instagram Followers for $0.78/1000 – Youtube Views: $1.62/1000 – Twitter followers: $2.10/1000 – Paypal Deposit – Bitcoin Deposit – Fast order processing – 1 Hour Delivery Our Website: https://smmsupreme.com/services


    February 19, 2021 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  48. favorite cam girls

    418583 760996I believe this site has some genuinely wonderful information for everybody : D. 42180

    February 26, 2021 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  49. KndnGafe

    viagra prices walmart is viagra a vasodilator viagra vs birth control insurance coverage

    February 26, 2021 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  50. Setting Fires (song)

    183391 376305Ought to tow line this caravan together with van trailer home your entire family quickly get exposed towards the issues along with reversing create tight placement. awnings 290703

    February 27, 2021 at 3:21 am | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.