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'Sorcery' killings

Gabriel Domínguez
June 16, 2014

With experts pointing to a "growing pattern" of sorcery-related assaults, UN rights adviser Signe Poulsen tells DW the Papua New Guinea government is failing to protect the victims and bring the attackers to justice.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

There is growing concern about the Papua New Guinea's reported failure to prevent crimes related to the use of sorcery amd witchcraft. The United Nations, which has repeatedly expressed concern about "the growing pattern of vigilante attacks and killings" of persons accused of sorcery in the Pacific nation, now urges the government in Port Moresby to effectively and immediately investigate such cases.

The murder of Kepari Leniata made headlines around the world in February last year. The 20-year-old was stripped naked, tied up, doused in petrol and burned alive in front of a crowd by relatives of a boy who died following an illness in the city of Mount Hagen, according to multiple reports. Her attackers claimed she had caused his death through sorcery.

In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women found sorcery was often used as a pretext to mask the abuse of women in PNG.

With the level of witchcraft-related violence seemingly on the rise in the island nation, UN human rights adviser Signe Poulsen says in a DW interview, the government in Port Moresby must do more to tackle the issue and criticizes leading officials for bringing back the death penalty, saying a fair trial and certainty of punishment would be a better deterrent.

DW: How widespread is the belief in sorcery in Papua New Guinea?

Signe Poulsen: Belief in sorcery and witchcraft is widespread throughout Papua New Guinea, both in rural and urban areas. The beliefs vary between communities, and in some contexts have resulted in violent responses against persons accused of practicing sorcery or witchcraft. The profile of those accused also vary, and although in many communities women and girls have become victims, in other areas men have also been targeted.

Why would someone be suspected of witchcraft?

In many cases, allegations follow a sudden death or illness in the community. However, some observers have also pointed out that issues such as social stress and change, poverty, uneven development and disputes over land also may play a role in some cases.

In this Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 photo, bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea.
Some cases of recent killings, such as that of Kepari Leniata, have been very public with large crowds involved.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

How widespread is the practice of murder for suspected sorcery?

Our office has not compiled statistics on this. However, local media have reported a number of cases of killings this year.

Who are mostly the victims?

Most of those reported to have been killed or attacked are women. Those who attempt to protect the alleged sorcerer are sometimes themselves accused of sorcery. Family members of the accused can also be at risk, including spouses and children.

Who is responsible for sentencing the suspected sorcerers to death?

In some cases, allegations apparently escalate to the point of killing, without a "sentencing" process. In other cases, individuals may be called in to identify the sorcerer. There are reports of community leaders getting involved, and in other cases accusations may come from relatives of someone who has died suddenly. Some cases of recent killings, such as that of Kepari Leniata, have been very public with large crowds involved.

What has the government done to tackle this issue?

There are indications that the government in Port Moresby is serious about addressing the problem. However, it faces a number of challenges. In May 2013, the first of a series of notable steps taken by the Government was the repeal of the Sorcery Act 1971, legislation which perpetuated violence against accused sorcerers by criminalizing this practice and providing mitigating provisions for any harm done to a person accused of sorcery.

Legislation was also passed which provided for the death penalty for killings resulting from allegations of sorcery and witchcraft. However, I must point out that the OHCHR does not believe that the death penalty is an effective measure. We believe it is rather the certainty that perpetrators will be apprehended and dealt with through sound judicial processes that will serve as a deterrent.

During last week's consultation to develop a national action plan against sorcery- and witchcraft-related violence, participants developed a multi-sectoral approach which will be used to address violence resulting from sorcery and witchcraft accusations, and protect victims.

Nevertheless, the killings are still taking place. What are the shortcomings of the government's current approach?

At the local level, civil society and local police, public legal service providers, magistrates, health workers and village leaders have in some cases worked together effectively to prevent violence and protect those facing allegations of sorcery.

However, in numerous cases, those accused of attacks against alleged sorcerers have not been brought to justice. The police force in some cases does not have the resources or personnel required to stop attacks. In some cases, officers themselves have reportedly been complicit in attacks. Police officers also face challenges when investigating attacks. Victims and witnesses have in some cases been unwilling to speak out. There is no victim and witness protection programme in PNG.

What must be done to stop this practice?

To be effective, approaches must be multifaceted and part of a comprehensive program. First, there must be an end to impunity for those who incite or commit acts of violence against individuals accused of sorcery and witchcraft. These crimes must be promptly investigated and perpetrators brought to justice in fair trials. The establishment of a victim and witness protection programme would also be of importance if efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are to be effective.

Secondly, there is a need for broad based human rights and peace education, including education targeting health workers, judicial actors, community leaders, schools and police among others.

Hexenjagd in Papua-Neuguinea wieder auf Vormarsch
"Belief in sorcery and witchcraft is widespread throughout Papua New Guinea, both in rural and urban areas," says PoulsenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Third, there needs to be a program designed to provide support to victims and their families. Survivors of allegations of sorcery and witchcraft in many cases become displaced and impoverished, lose their social networks, and are at heightened risk of further violations.

Finally, there is a need to recognize and protect individuals who put themselves at risk to help those accused of sorcery and witchcraft. One way of strengthening and providing such support could be through the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission.

Signe Poulsen is based in Papua New Guinea where she works as an adviser for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Right (OHCHR).

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.

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