NGOs and human rights defenders in Mauritania work in extremely difficult circumstances and face significant risks when promoting rights or the protection of vulnerable groups. NGOs are mandated by law to register but registration is sometimes denied, leaving them with no choice but to operate illegally. In 2016, UN Rapporteurs jointly criticised a draft law on civil society, calling on the authorities to remove the law from the legislative process because adequate consultations had not been undertaken and because the law created unnecessarily burdensome requirements on CSOs and gave overly broad powers of dissolution to the authorities.

Slavery is a particularly serious issue in Mauritania, where the practice continues despite a 1981 decree and a 2016 law designating slavery a crime against humanity. Anti-slavery movements and activists face routine arrests and harassment as a direct result of their advocacy. Many activists belonging to the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist (IRA) Movement in Mauritania have been jailed, and the government does not recognise the movement. The IRA has been waiting for registration for five years. In January 2015, three anti-slavery activists Brahim Bilal Ramdane, Djiby Sow and Biram Dah Abeid were sentenced to two years imprisonment for belonging to an unrecognised organisation. In a positive development, ten IRA activists were released from prison in November 2016.

There is no legislation to protect human rights defenders in the country. Those who report human rights violations receive death threats, intimidation and are blackmailed. Other non-state actors, such as religious leaders, openly call for attacks on human rights defenders. In 2014, the head of an Islamist organisation threatened human rights defender Aminetou Mint El-Moctar calling for her eyes to be “gouged out” and offering a reward for her killing. The police refused to grant her protection. In prison, activists, and other prisoners face methods of torture including electric shocks in order to extract information from them. Jailed activists are also denied access to medical care. The same methods are also used on suspected homosexuals. In 2014, the government closed several Muslim education and charity organisations. Their offices were sealed without explanation. Workers may organise, but their gatherings are met with much hostility.