Witch Hunting Requires An International Response

Acts of torture and killings of alleged witches continue with impunity. With states not bothering to safeguard their citizens, the UN must step in.

Protection of citizens is one of the state’s most overarching obligations. Accordingly a modern State must fulfill or be made to fulfill this duty. This is because in our westphalian world order of nation states, the State is the central organ for social and political organization; the mechanism for the maintenance of law and order. The State is supposed to ensure the security of lives and property. Discussions on the Responsibility to Protect have mainly focused on four key areas. They are the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In 2005, the UN accepted the responsibility and will to act in situations where states fail in their duty to protect their citizens. The UN committed to addressing these areas of concern and to take protective and preventive measures. However, there is a phenomenon that is going to require transnational attention and remedies – witch-hunting.

Unfortunately, no mention was made of witch cleansing and other atrocities that are committed in the name of witchcraft and occult fears. There was no reference to the obvious lack of political commitment to protecting alleged witches and to preventing violence linked to witchcraft beliefs, whether actual or perceived. In other words, member states of the UN did not deem it worthwhile to take on, at the highest level, crimes that are committed against alleged witches worldwide. This global moral failure, this disappointing oversight has to be urgently addressed.

This is because there is overwhelming evidence of the inability of states to protect their citizens following accusations of witchcraft. The UN needs to step in to fill this gap and rectify this dereliction of duty by member-states. For instance, like war criminals and perpetrators of ethnic cleansing, witch hunters take actions that undermine peace and security in various countries. They perpetrate with impunity egregious human rights violations, atrocious and horrific crimes. Accusers attack suspected witches in the middle of the night; they beat them up or murder them in cold blood. Witchcraft exorcists shackle, starve and beat up suspected witches. The victims are men or women, children or elderly persons including people living with disabilities. Witch hunters destroy the houses and belongings of alleged witches and subject accused persons to trial by ordeal. The trial involves the drinking of poisonous concoctions that sometimes leads to death or serious health damage.

For instance, as I am writing this piece, the fate of a 70-year-old Nigerian woman, Auntie B, from Edo State in Southern Nigeria hangs in a balance. Auntie B is a widow from Idumoza, Irrua in Esan Central in Edo state. She was accused of being responsible for the death of a child. According to local sources, the woman was twice alleged to have harmed children through occult means. In the first instance, a child said before his death that the auntie gave him some food to eat. People suspected that some magical substance in the food led to the death of the child. The case was reported to the elders of the community. But the elders dismissed the case on the ground that the matter was not brought to them to consider when the child was alive.

Not too long after this child passed away, another child took ill in the community and also claimed that the same auntie gave him something to eat and the matter was reported to the elders. This time, the elders ruled that the woman should be taken to drink some concoction to ascertain her guilt. Local sources said that the magical potion contained toxic substances. Incidentally, those who wanted to administer the substance asked the accusers to pay 50,000 Naira (150 dollars) but the accusers could not afford the fee. Auntie B therefore did not take the concoction, and she is temporarily out of danger.

Auntie B continues to live in fear because she could, at any time, be attacked or killed by her accusers. Killing an alleged witch is considered a form of community service, a way to revenge and neutralize the source of harm and danger to the community.  Auntie B’s village, Irrua, is near Ozalla community, where, at least 20 accused persons died after drinking concoctions under a similar circumstance in 2004. Those who perpetrated the crime have not been brought to justice because powerful persons including an ex-military officer were said to be behind the accusation and death of the alleged witches.

In Ghana and Burkina Faso, there are makeshift shelters where alleged witches take refuge. Hundred of alleged witches, mainly women, who fled their homes and communities after being accused of perpetrating occult harm, reside in these places. In Ghana, these shelters, popularly known as witch camps, predate colonialism. In fact, in recent years the government of Ghana has, instead of tackling witchcraft allegations that force people to flee their homes and communities, threatened to close down these witch sanctuaries. Suspected witches are treated as underserving state protection in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

Meanwhile, it is not only in Africa that states have failed in their responsibility to protect citizens who are accused of witchcraft. In the Indian subcontinent and Oceania, alleged witches suffer a similar fate. Suspected witches are targets of mob violence and extrajudicial killings.

In India, it has been reported that four persons, who were suspected of practicing witchcraft or black magic, have been murdered in the village of Jharkhand in the district of Gumla. Their killers stormed their homes in the early hours of the morning, dragged the alleged witches to the village square and lynched them. Suspected witches are subjected to similar horrific abuses in Nepal and Papua New Guinea.

In many cases, these atrocious crimes happen near police stations or offices of provincial or municipal authorities. In fact suspicions of witchcraft frequently begin among police officers and other state security agents. So, no arrests are made and in situations where some persons are arrested, they are seldom successfully prosecuted. Witnesses fear to come forward to testify against witch killers. People are usually afraid of witch hunters. This is because witch hunters are often persons in stronger socio-cultural and political positions with the means to victimize persons who testify against them. In many countries, witchcraft allegation trumps the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens.

Thus without an effective mechanism to tackle witch hunters, and address horrific crimes linked to witchcraft beliefs, the transnational epidemic of witch persecution and killing will continue. The United Nations needs to act now and act fast to protect alleged witches and prevent witch-hunting and witch cleansing in communities worldwide. The UN needs a mechanism that will enable it to sanction member states that are unable to fulfill their responsibility to protect alleged witches from attacks, persecutions, murder, trial by ordeal, banishment, torture, inhuman and degrading treatments. This mechanism will permit the UN to reprimand member states that refuse to call to order or penalize those who incite violence against alleged witches including traditional healers, pastors, mallams and other so-called religious experts. UN agencies need to mainstream harmful practices that are linked to witchcraft beliefs in the various sectors, so that they can effectively address allegations that affect children, women, the elderly persons and people living with disabilities.

In conclusion, witch-hunts may have ‘ended’ in Europe centuries ago, but vicious crimes linked to witchcraft beliefs have continued in many parts of the world. Witchcraft allegation presents a global challenge. It constitutes a religious, health care, environmental, human (women, children) rights and development issue. The United Nations must lead efforts to end witch-hunting in this 21st century and ensure that states fulfill their duty to protect alleged witches around the globe.

Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.