Legal instruments and the persistence of descent-based slavery in West Africa, by Fousseni Diabaté (September 2021)

In West African countries in general, and in Mali in particular, the implementation of legal instruments remains a tricky issue, both at the national and the international level. In Mali, several factors (political, socio-cultural, etc.) hinder this implementation, thus compromising the respect for human rights and land ownership. The political factor lies in the lack of will of the public authorities to draft a specific law criminalising slavery in Mali. At the socio-cultural level, the Soninké, the Peuhl and the Khassonké communities still consider the practice of slavery justifiable by local customs, considering it an institution handed down from generation to generation among the descendants of the”masters” and the descendants of the “slaves”. Some do not want to see a change in the system of slavery under the influence of human rights and the rule of law, let alone to be involved in the fight against slavery in their respective communities.

In this regard, victims of descent-based slavery suffer because of their rank and social status. They do not have any rights within these communities. The victims of descent-based slavery face denial of basic rights, marginalisation and forced displacement, especially if they oppose these so-called customary practices. They are then forced to leave their villages and stop cultivating the land which belonged to their ancestors, sometimes for centuries.

In recent years, many of the victims have rebelled against this practice, which has led to killings, dispossession and forced displacement in the Kayes region.  From 2018 to the present day, more than 2,185 victims of descent-based slavery had to leave their homes in this region only because of their resistance to the practice. They settled in other localities in Mali. One victim states: “We came to Bamako with our husbands and children because of our revolt and refusal against this so-called customary practice. This famous practice is nothing more than slavery. The so-called masters threatened us with collective reprisals if we did not leave their village. We have been in this struggle for three years. Our husbands and children say that they no longer accept being slaves. All those who are here are victims of slavery by descent.”

However, the principles of equality, freedom and property are guaranteed in the West African Constitutions, particularly in that of Mali. Therefore, the Malian authorities must ensure that these constitutional and universal principles are respected by all Malian citizens. In short, Mali must take action to ensure the proper implementation of legal instruments relating to the fight against slavery, but also to adopt a specific law criminalising slavery. This will enable judges to decide on cases brought before them in order to guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms to everyone.

Fousseini DIABATE, PhD at  LERDDL

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