The last country in the world to abolish slavery

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In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery. But the West African nation still has a long way to go.

Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery
Slavery wasn’t abolished until 1981 (Shutterstock)

Last country in the world to abolish slavery

Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery when the practice was finally made illegal in 1981 – nearly 120 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the USA in 1863.

Despite the change in law, it was not until 2007 that Mauritania passed an additional law that actually criminalised the act of owning another person. Rights groups have suggested that at the time the country had jailed more anti-slavery activists than actual slave owners.

Map of Mauritania
Mauritania is located in West Africa (Shutterstock)

As of 2012, there had only been one conviction against a slave owner. It was estimated that 340,000 to 680,000 people were still enslaved, representing 10-20% of the then population of 3.4 million.

Those who still live in bondage, are believed to mostly come from the minority Haratines (“Black Moors”) or Afro-Mauritanian ethnic groups. They habitually live as indentured labourers, domestic servants or child brides, usually enslaved by lighter-skinned Mauritanians – referred to as “White Moors”.

A man walks in Mauritania
In 2018, 90,000 people were estimated to be enslaved (Shutterstock)

Over the last few years, the situation seems to have improved somewhat. In 2015, a new anti-slavery law was passed which made the offence a “crime against humanity” and doubled the prison sentence for offenders to 20 years.

In 2018, further progress was made when two slave owners were jailed for 10 and 20 years – thought to be the toughest sentences ever handed out for the crime in Mauritania. At the time, the courts had received a further 47 cases for investigation involving 53 suspects.

The 2018 Global Slavery Index suggested there were still 90,000 people living in modern slavery with an estimated proportion of the population living in modern slavery as 21.43 out of every 1,000 people.

The unspeakable truth about slavery in Mauritania, The Guardian
A Mauritanian Abolitionist’s Crusade Against Slavery, The New Yorker
Slavery’s last stronghold, CNN
Global Slavery Index
Activists warn over slavery as Mauritania joins UN human rights council, Reuters
Mauritania court gives toughest sentence for slave owners, BBC News
Minority Rights Group
Mauritania anti-slavery law welcomed by campaigners, BBC News

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