On December 10th 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to the atrocities of the Second World War, and since then December 10th has been celebrated as Human Rights Day.
68 years since the historic agreement was made that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’, with the ‘right to life, liberty and security of person’, the Declaration and its commemoration are as necessary and as relevant as ever. The treatment of many people in Mauritania in north western Africa, where slavery based on descent remains widespread, presents us with one example why.
For generations the Haratine people, also known as the Black Moors, have been enslaved by the White Moors who form an ethnic-based elite dominating the country’s economy, government, military and police. The Haratine account for approximately 40% of Mauritania’s population and it is unknown exactly how many are in slavery.
Slavery practices are usually shrouded in secrecy and taboo. A tiny minority of the people suffering this form of slavery run away, and many fugitive slaves are assisted by local anti-slavery organisations SOS-Esclaves and IRA-Mauritania (who usually receive or identify at least one new case a month between them). However, most victims remain in slavery all their lives. Slaves are told that their condition is divinely ordained, and that they will only go to Paradise if they obey their masters. People who have escaped are usually deeply traumatised, with little concept of choice; despite having made the brave decision to escape, they are unused to independence and life beyond slavery is extremely difficult for them.
The lives of those enslaved is as horrendous as one might imagine. Living under the direct control of their masters, they are treated as property and receive no payment for their work. They face verbal and physical abuse. Girls and women are often sexually abused and raped by their masters. If a slave has a child, that child then also becomes the property of the master, and like all those enslaved, children can be rented out, loaned, given as gifts in marriage or inherited by the masters’ children.
Organisations such as Anti-Slavery International and Amnesty International work hard all year round to raise awareness of issues such as these and fight for change, and they deserve our support.
The British government has a strong commitment to leading in the fight against modern slavery, and indeed it was our current Prime Minister who introduced the Modern Slavery Bill as Home Secretary and reaffirmed her commitment to tackling the problem earlier this year. As Shadow Foreign Minister, I am committed to holding the government to account on this and ensuring we do all we can to help end slavery in all its forms.
Sadly, it is human nature that there will always be some people who will seek to subvert and suppress the rights of others, either because of some historical or cultural allegiance or simply for personal gain. Despite so much human progress since the adoption of the principles in 1948, the fact that human beings are still held in slavery in countries across the world today is unacceptable.
Both here and abroad we must continually fight to protect and communicate the values demonstrated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and we must never take them for granted.
Today, on Human Rights Day, we remember those values. And all year round we must strive to act on them.