In the late 1980s, the Mauritanian government initiated a policy of "Arabization" and expelled some 70,000 non-Arab citizens. Civil servants were arbitrarily arrested and deported, and villagers were driven into neighboring countries to live in camps as stateless refugees. In 2000 the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights found that their rights had been violated. For nine years, those expelled have sought the implementation of that decision. (Keywords: statelessness - citizenship)
Mauritania is ethnically composed of Arab Moors living in the North of the country, and various non-Arab ethnic groups in the South. Following a coup d'état in 1984, a policy of Arabization began. In 1986 and 1987, black Mauritanians who protested against the wave of repression were arrested, tried summarily, and even executed. Agitators were detained incommunicado, often in solitary confinement.
In 1989, following an outbreak of cross-border violence with Senegal, the Mauritanian government expelled 70,000 black Mauritanians to Senegal and Mali. Many of those expelled occupied fertile farmland in the South. Entire villages were emptied and the land was given to Moors. Expellees who attempted to reoccupy their villages were arrested or killed. In other villages, curfews were imposed, and sometimes enforced through violence—such as torture and rape—by the army and Moorish militias.
In 1991, the government made superficial attempts at reconciliation with the remaining black Mauritanians. It set up a commission of inquiry into past arrests and expulsions, but the commission was not independent, did not discuss its methodology, and never made a public report of its findings.
Mauritania did not contest allegations of widespread human rights violations. In 1992, the government declared that displaced Mauritanians could return to their homes and promised to assist returnees, but failed to acknowledge the citizenship or rights of expellees who attempted to repatriate.
A Justice Initiative lawyer acted as counsel for the Collectif des Veuves, which submitted a communication to the ACHPR on behalf of Mauritanian expellees in 1997. The Justice Initiative became involved in implementation in 2004, through the Africa Discrimination and Citizenship Audit, a joint project with OSI's African regional foundations. It has also partnered with the Institute on Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA).
Discrimination. The Mauritanian government's targeted arrests and expulsion of black civil servants and villagers constituted a violation of Articles 2 and 3 African Charter (non-discrimination and equal protection).
Denial of citizenship. Black Mauritanians were evicted from their homes and deprived of their citizenship in violation of Article 12(1) African Charter (right to residence in one's State).
Deprivation of property. The personal property and land of black Mauritanians was confiscated or destroyed without justification, in violation of Article 14 African Charter (right to property).
Denial of peace and security. The Mauritanian government attacked villages of black citizens, violating their right to peace and security under Article 23 African Charter (peace & security).
1991. The Malawi African Association and Amnesty International submit applications to the African Commission. Further applications are filed by Ms. Sarr Diop, Recontre Africaine pour la Defense des Droits de l'Homme (RADDHO), and Union Interafricaine des Droits de l'Homme (UIDH) in 1993, which are joined. The government does not respond to the applications.
1996. The Commission holds hearings and concludes that Mauritania does not seriously contest the allegations. The Commission undertakes a week-long mission to Mauritania and prepares a report which is sent to the government.
1997. The Collectif des Veuves et Ayants-droit (CSRVM), represented by IHRDA, submits further claims on behalf of victims. The communication is joined to earlier communications.
1998. Association Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (AMDH) submits a claim which is joined.
May 11, 2000. Decision by the African Commission.
2008. Repatriation commences.
On May 11, 2000, the ACHPR declared that during the period of 1989-1992, there were grave or massive human rights violations committed against black Mauritanians, in violation of the African Charter. Among the most serious violations committed by the government were arbitrary and discriminatory deprivation of citizenship and wrongful expulsion of citizens.
The ACHPR made a number of recommendations, including that Mauritania take diligent measures to ensure the return of expelled Mauritanians without delay, replace expelled persons' national identity documents, restore looted property, reinstate government workers and pay reparations.
By 2003, the Mauritanian government had not complied with the recommendations, despite pressure from civil society and human rights organizations to do so. The African Union Special Rapporteur on Refugees was mandated to undertake a fact-finding mission to document the situation of expellees in Senegal.
In 2004, the Justice Initiative and partners visited the camps along the Senegal-Mauritania border where 25,000 Mauritanians were living, obtaining sworn statements from expellees regarding the confiscation of their identity documents and loss of citizenship. In 2005, the Justice Initiative visited Senegal with the Special Rapporteur to document the situation of expellees there. In August 2007, the Special Rapporteur, the Justice Initiative, and IHRDA visited Mauritania and Mali, where expellees reiterated their demands to return and be given their citizenship.
In November 2007, a tripartite agreement was signed by Mauritania, Senegal, and the UNHCR for the return and reintegration of expellees.
Process of Repatriation
In January 2008, the first convoy of 103 refugees from Senegal arrived in Mauritania. Returnees benefited from an assistance package and food rations, and civil society partners worked to build infrastructure to benefit the returnees and local communities.
By November 2008, over 5,000 displaced Mauritanians had returned. However, there were concerns about the lack of transparency in repatriations, and delays in the issuance of identification papers. The Justice Initiative and IHRDA organized a workshop in Dakar in December, bringing leaders of expellees to express their views and concerns to UNHCR and government officials.
A further coup caused delays, as a result of which only 10,000 Mauritanian expellees had been repatriated by April of 2009, although 25,000 should have been repatriated by that time.
Many returnees are denied documents and so lack an identity under the law, causing difficulties accessing basic social services, voting, and traveling. Some expellees returned to formerly undeveloped land that is now cultivated by its occupants, who refuse to leave without some form of compromise or compensation.
The Justice Initiative continues to address issues such as how citizenship should be assessed, how identity documents should be granted, and how land should be restored. It is also examining the causes of delays, the percentage of returnees who have been issued identity documents, and the percentage of returnees who have now gone back to Senegal or Mali because they were unable to obtain these documents.