1. Overview of the human rights and democracy situation: Mauritania hosted the 62nd session of the African Union Human and People Rights commission in April 2018 as well as the 31st AU summit in July. During the last legislative, regional and municipal elections that were simultaneously organised in the autumn of 2018, the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) obtained the absolute majority of the seats in the national assembly (93/157), as well as the presidency of all 13 regional councils and the majority of municipalities. Unlike the last elections, all opposition parties participated, with the Islamic Tawassoul party remaining the leading opposition party with 14 seats in parliament.
President Abdel Aziz, who is now in his second and last term, has kept his word that he would respect the constitutional two-term limit despite calls from his supporters to remain in place. However, he has also declared his intention to run for the post again in the future. Speculation is currently ongoing as to who will be his successor in what is set to be the country's first democratic transfer of the presidency since independence in 1960. A joint ACP-EU parliamentary assembly (JPA) mission in April encouraged the Mauritanian authorities to increase their work within the fields of governance, rule of law and human rights adherence in 2018.
Important law proposals were discussed by the National Assembly in 2018, although further implementation was stymied due to their sensitive nature. For example, a law targeting discrimination was adopted in January 2018, but has remained wildly contested by national non-governmental organisations as well as the OHCHR as it is viewed to impose a limit on the freedom of expression. This being said, Mauritania is at the top of the Reporters without Borders list of Arab countries when it comes to the freedom of written press and social media platforms. However, the revision of article 306 of the Penal Code is viewed to have set the country back from a prior 55th to a 72nd place (out of 180). Article 306 relates to the act of blasphemy, which it judges a crime automatically leading to the death penalty without taking into account the possible repentance of the accused. In 2014 the young blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould M'Khaitir was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy and apostasy. Although the charges were later eased to 2 years (already served) following a second appeal in 2017, M'Khaitir is still held in “administrative detention” at a secret location, allegedly for security reasons.
Slavery remains a persistent issue in Mauritania, with the government addressing the issue primarily as "remnants of the practice". NGOs have continued to bring forward cases. Three special tribunals have since 2015 been charged with judging cases of slavery, with five judgements in three years, whereof four happened shortly before the JPA visit in 2018. There is significant activity among NGOs within the specific area, although some, like IRA (Initiative de Resurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste), have been refused official registration. IRA’s leader Biram Dah Abeid, was elected to the National Assembly while kept in detention from 7 August till 31 December. Since his release he has declared that he will run for the Presidency.
Gender has remained a sensitive issue during 2018, as a draft law aimed at combatting gender-based violence was rejected for a second time on 25 December by the National Assembly's Islamic orientation commission, before being withdrawn by the government. The EU has continually provided support to local women's rights groups that have been working through 2018 to get a law passed making gender based violence a criminal act and providing human rights based protection for victims of this form of violence.
2. EU action – key focus areas: The EU supports the four identified priority areas: ensuring a functioning justice system, putting an end to practices of slavery, supporting the inclusion of Mauritanian women and putting an end to torture. The EU's activities in Mauritania in 2018 focused on supporting, encouraging and accompanying the implementation of these topics, as well as helping to provide the necessary space for corresponding reforms.
3. EU bilateral political engagement: The EU Delegation holds regular political dialogue meetings with the Mauritanian government. During these meetings the issue of human rights is a stable feature. The EU also raises specific human rights cases directly with the government.
European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) financed projects seek to improve the quality of life and support the reintegration of people detained in four Mauritanian prisons during 2018. The EIDHR has also financed four specific actions: two that fight slavery and two aimed at resolving land disputes in the Senegal River valley that have a direct link to discriminatory practices and practices of slavery.
A new initiative has just started under the EIDHR that will work to prevent sexual violence against women and girls in the capital Nouakchott and in the Guidimakha region in southern Mauritania. The initiative will furthermore pay the medical and psychological costs that may be tied to such cases and work to secure human rights for Sexual-Violence Survivors. It is a project that largely includes local, regional and national authorities, but also the security and judicial sectors. In a more general context the EU supports an IOM initiative working to protect and reintegrate migrants, financed by the Emergency Trust Fund (EUTF). Another project works in the same vein to increase national capacities for providing protection of migrant children against trafficking in human beings and slavery.
4. EU financial engagement: Under the 11th EDF the programme for the improvement of the justice sector (PARJ) worth a total of EUR 12.6 million was approved in June. The 10th EDF Justice Programme completed in October 2018 worked to support the government in developing a national strategy for the justice sector.
5. Multilateral context: Despite judicial and institutional progress in the human rights area, serious concerns remain due to the continued lack of implementing legislative measures to improve the human rights situation in Mauritania. Since the last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2017, Mauritania has been working in the third UPR cycle with international institutions (UNICEF, OHCHR) to tackle human rights issues such as gender, protection of vulnerable people, women and youth, putting an end to practices related to slavery and trafficking.