Mauritanian activists on Tuesday praised the United States’ decision to end trade benefits over the practice of slavery and called on other states to follow suit with sanctions.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday Mauritania was no longer eligible for the benefits, citing insufficient progress last year in eradicating forced labor and hereditary slavery.
Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania, which became the last country to abolish it in 1981. Today more than two in every 100 people – 90,000 in total – live as slaves, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index.
The Mauritanian government denies that slavery is widespread and said the U.S. decision was based on misinformation.
“This decision… is surprising to say the least,” said Mauritania’s foreign ministry on Monday.
“This phenomenon (slavery) has disappeared from Mauritanian society and the after-effects of the practice are being eradicated due to… government policies,” the statement said.
There have been only four prosecutions of slave-owners since Mauritania criminalized the practice in 2007 and dozens of cases are languishing in the courts. Anti-slavery activists have been jailed on several occasions.
“Pressuring them (the government) by economic means is very important,” said Salimata Lam, national coordinator for the anti-slavery group SOS Esclaves.
“If European states followed this path … a lot of things could change in Mauritania,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Mauritania has a national agency dedicated to fighting the after-effects of slavery, poverty and integration that has set up schools and social housing and distributed agricultural equipment to former slaves.
But activists say the laws against slavery are not respected and the punishments not harsh enough.
“The fact that there is international pressure will push Mauritania to take things seriously,” said Moussa Biram, a member of the anti-slavery group the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA).
Eligibility for funding under the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which provides duty-free treatment for certain goods, is reviewed every year and can be restored at any time.
Mauritania will still receive trade benefits under another U.S. program, the Generalized System of Preferences.
“This is a struggle that Americans understand all too well,” said Michael Dodman, the U.S. ambassador to Mauritania.
“That is one reason that American law requires my government to take difficult decisions when we assess that a country is not making continual progress toward the protection of human rights,” he said in a statement.