(Beirut) – The government of Mauritania on November 6, 2019 retracted a discriminatory regulation limiting college enrollment that had led to weeks of protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The 2018 rule limited enrollment by new students in the country’s public universities to students age 24 or under, which was seen to disproportionately affect low-income students.
Since the beginning of October, protesters, most of them students, had held almost daily demonstrations near the Higher Education Ministry in Nouakchott, the capital. The police regularly dispersed the protests, apparently using excessive force. Police action against the protesters on November 5 led at least 15 to seek treatment at a Nouakchott hospital. One of the protesters, Maryam Atallah, lost consciousness after police reportedly hit her on the head. The authorities should investigate the conduct of security forces during these protests and hold those responsible for abuses to account.
“The government did the right thing by retracting discriminatory regulations that barred students from higher education,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Mauritanians should not lose their opportunity to pursue higher education merely because they have turned 25.”
In Mauritania, acceptance into a public higher education institution is based on a prospective student’s performance in the final year of secondary school. Potential university students must register in a centralized online system and are only informed after the end of the registration period what their major area of study will be.
The government had justified the 2018 regulation, imposed by Higher Education Minister Sidi Ould Salem, as a common measure taken in other countries in Africa. Authorities in 2018 eased the restriction that would have affected 1,400 students at the time after a public outcry. Critics contend that it disproportionately harmed poor students, who take longer on average to complete their education and are less able to pay the tuition at private institutions.
Mauritania’s higher education institutions already had more limited age cutoffs for enrollment, including a maximum age of 22 for incoming medical students. The 2018 decision was more sweeping.
On November 6, a ministerial committee on higher education reform announced that prospective students over age 24 would be allowed to register for the current academic year. The change will affect an estimated 700 prospective students.
The ministerial committee also said that a final decision was pending on a comprehensive reform of higher education that was already on the government agenda. President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, who took office on August 1, said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25 that he intended to improve the country’s educational system.
Human Rights Watch spoke with three prospective students who said they had been prevented from enrolling this year because of their age, as well as with the head of a student association, a human rights activist, and a journalist.
The protesters told Human Rights Watch that police dispersing the protesters had beaten them, on various days during peaceful protests. Human Rights Watch reviewed videos and photos that appeared consistent with the protesters’ descriptions. A student union’s Facebook page has a video purporting to show the police on November 6 in riot gear beating apparently peaceful protesters with batons and dragging a person lying on his back along a street.
Ahmed Mukhtar, chairman of the National Students Union and an economics student at the University of Nouakchott, said: “Most of the affected [prospective students] are the poor. In Mauritania, government schooling is at a low level, which is why students end up repeating grades multiple times. Well-off people, on the other hand, can afford private education.”
He said that following the protests in 2018, the government had announced “exceptional measures” to assign affected students to programs not of their choosing, such as vocational training.
One of the potential students, Mohamed Maa Eleinein Sid Elkheir, 25, said he was refused admission to study law because of his age. Amad Mohamed Khatri, said he had passed the examination for his Baccalaureate, the country’s high school diploma, in 2019, after taking the exam for three successive years. He said financial issues prevented him from finishing his schooling sooner.
During the protests, students stood in formation holding banners rejecting the regulation. Those interviewed said that the police regularly used electric batons and beat protesters with sticks to disperse the protesters, usually after about 10 p.m. each evening.
Mukhtar, who joined the protests in solidarity with affected students, described being beaten on October 23: He said a group of protesters “ were trying to cross the road to protest in front of the ministry, when the police came and started to beat down on us. I tried to shield others, but I was beaten by a policeman with a taser that emits shocks. I was hit on my arms, sides and thighs.”
Atallah, 27, a prospective law student, said that financial problems had prevented her from finishing her baccalaureate earlier. She said that she and other students started to protest after they tried to meet with the higher education minister but were turned down: “After a few days of protesting, the police came to suppress our peaceful demonstration and started to hit protesters with sticks, including me.”
Attalah and Sid Elkheir were among the protesters who were severely beaten by the police on November 5. According to Sid Elkheir, Attalah was beaten by police and fell unconscious. Photos of the incident apparently corroborate these allegations.
Sid Elkheir said: “When she [Attalah] lost consciousness I was in the hands of the police who did not stop beating me even though I was unable to move. When I raised my head and found myself on the opposite side of the road with the other injured young men, I saw that she was being transported to hospital, unconscious.”
As a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), Mauritania is also obligated to ensure that higher education “shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity.” According to General Comment 13 on the right to education, the authoritative guidance on the implementation of the covenant, the “capacity” of individuals should be assessed by reference to all their relevant expertise and experience. According to this comment, countries must not use age alone as a basis to deny students access to public higher education.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Mauritania is a party, upholds the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
Ould Ghazouani should urgently direct state security forces to abide by international standards for law enforcement during demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Mauritanian security forces are obligated to abide by these principles.