Mauritania rights body president examines progress
Interview by Hamdi Ould Cheikh for Magharebia in Nouakchott – 16/12/10
Bamariam Baba Koita is the President of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), an independent body tasked with investigating human rights abuses in Mauritania. Koita does everything from reviewing citizens' complaints to rehabilitating victims of slavery. Magharebia sat down for an interview with Koita in his Nouakchott office to discuss a number of topics ranging from women's rights to prison conditions to how terrorism could negatively impact civil liberties in the country.
Magharebia: What is your assessment of the human rights situation in Mauritania?
Bamariam Baba Koita: The overall situation regarding human rights in our country is characterised by a general political consensus about the need to legislate and put an end to the humanitarian failures experienced by the country in the past. However, if there is to be open participation by NGOs in promoting and defending human rights, then a great many constraints and obstacles first need to be identified and removed.
Among the constraints which need to be lifted is the lack of material resources, as is the case in the least developed countries, and the lack of human resources tasked with integrating human rights into development strategies. The high rate of unemployment and the weakness of the inspection systems put in place by the workplace inspectorate.
Essential undertakings and new initiatives to encourage the emergence of a human rights culture could follow this route: A deepening and consolidation of peaceful and consensual democratic rule though partnership and dialogue; the transparent and diligent operation of the justice administration as a real supporter and guardian of personal freedoms; the improvement of prison conditions to meet international standards and the promotion of policies to provide an alternative to detention.
And the strengthening of national unity by correcting previous humanitarian failures, by completing the process of identifying and rehabilitating those state officials who fell victim to the events of 1989, and the large-scale and urgent eradication of the after-effects of slavery through education, vocational training, employment and work to tackle poverty.
[In addition, there must be a] fight against all kinds of discrimination and the protection of minority and vulnerable groups. With this in mind, the 20% quota set aside for women should be raised, the specific needs of minority groups (languages and cultures) considered, the granting of legal assistance to those suffering from a handicap and legal protection of minors assured.
The bills to incriminate and crack down on slavery and bills to govern women's rights, in addition to their harmonisation with duly ratified conventions, must be published, announced, made known to the general public and made available to the authorities responsible for enforcing the law.
Magharebia: In the light of the picture you have just painted, what is the CNDH's assessment?
Koita: The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), since the Promulgation of the law of 20 July 2010, has become a major institution for the protection and promotion of human rights in Mauritania.
It is unique because of its independent involvement in the search for solutions to the problems of human rights violations in Mauritania.
It is as part of this that a number of CNDH missions have visited all the wilayas throughout the country to undertake investigations or to lead campaigns to make human rights more widely known and respected.
Activities to promote human rights have also continued with the organisation of workshops and seminars to raise awareness of cultural rights, rights in the workplace, children's rights, the rights of disabled people, on the topic of transitional justice, and the relationship between human rights and international humanitarian laws. These activities were carried out with a number of partners, particularly as part of activities to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of national independence.
On top of this, the CNDH receives hundreds of complaints from members of the public, families or communities to do with land disputes. Looking at these complaints, it became manifestly clear that we were faced with a situation of general litigation across all agricultural regions within the country.
It is a daily task of the CNDH to welcome, listen to and advise dozens of citizens who have come to tell us about their concerns regarding human rights.
The commission has noted that progress seen in human rights practices has chiefly resulted from the willingness of the authorities to be objectively informed about the real situation regarding human rights so that they can find suitable solutions, which means that the CNDH is completely free to carry out its work to alert, assess and watch human rights in the country in an independent manner.
So the Network of Arab National Human Rights Institutions decided at its meeting in 2010 in Rabat that its 7th session would take place in Nouakchott in 2011.
Magharebia: The situation facing prisoners in Nouakchott is a difficult one. Press reports talk of several deaths and overcrowding in prisons. What has your institution been doing in this area?
Koita: By virtue of the law, the CNDH is now a national mechanism to monitor human rights observance within penal establishments and detention premises, with its legal powers to undertake unannounced visits.
In exercising these powers, CNDH members, after visiting all the prisons in the country and the majority of detention premises including police stations, drew up an uncompromising report, calling for urgent decisions to be taken to improve detention conditions, particularly in Dar Naim prison.
However, it must be said that the authorities have recently taken some major steps in this direction, and they have taken on board just how much needs to be done to put the situation right.
Magharebia: Slavery continues to provide a topic for debate in Mauritania. Officially, it has been abolished. There is a law to make it a criminal offence. However, some organisations which exist to help the Haratines (former slaves) continue to say that the law is not being applied and that violations continue. How do you respond to that?
Koita: The legislation to abolish slavery in Mauritania has gone through several stages to reach its present and most detailed form as constituted by the 2007 law which makes slavery a criminal offence and cracks down on slavery-related activities. One of the features of this law is to set out prison terms and fines for any approved authority which has not followed up on reports of slavery-related practices of which it has been made aware, particularly by human rights associations which are officially recognised and approved to submit such reports.
Magharebia: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Koita: In a sub-regional environment facing new security threats arising from the rise in cross-border terrorism, drugs trafficking and illegal immigration, which are potential avenues for serious human rights violations, in a national context characterised by the unequivocal political will to find lasting solutions to human rights problems, to modernise Mauritanian society, and given the clear support of the country's economic partners, the CNDH would like the state to complete the various reforms which are currently under way, the final result of which should be to make the rule of law and full respect for human rights the watchword in Mauritania.
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