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UN expert workshop on witchcraft and human rights 21-22 September 2017

Remarks by Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

Thank you so much for joining this ground-breaking workshop - the first-ever to directly consider the intersections between witchcraft and human rights and do so in an in-depth manner at the UN or international level.

With us here this morning are some of the very best minds the world has on offer to us - State representatives, civil society activists, UN Experts, academics, thanks for making space in your busy schedules to work with us on this critical question.

This is a much needed opportunity to help expand the aperture through which we gaze out onto human rights denied in order to bring those to a conclusive end. Today we convene in order to better understand what we have not yet fully understood, to identify that which we have missed and thereby – most urgently – to better include in our action a more strategic focus on those whose experience of human rights violations is made even more egregious because their particular experience of human rights deprivation has been neglected, distorted, ignored, left out. 

The focus for our discussion – witchcraft - may indeed be unfamiliar but the purpose of our deliberations is all too familiar - to alleviate that human suffering which can be, must be prevented.

There are a number of dimensions that we hope this space will allow you to explore:

  • First and foremost, we are here to help clear a more visible pathway to a crucial destination – which is a comprehensive end to the egregious bodily and mental harm that is perpetrated in, tolerated because of, or, by any other means, aided or abetted in the name of witchcraft. 
  • We must be very clear then that our core concern here is with that harm first, not with the belief; with deeds first, not thoughts; with cruel physical and emotional costs wrought by one against another out of discrimination, bigotry and fear. 
  • Be it in the name of witchcraft or spirituality or religion or political ideology; long standing tradition or recent fad; be it in the name of knowledge or ignorance: beatings, banishment, cutting of body parts, amputation of limbs, torture and murder – these are appalling violations of human rights – no matter the attempted excuse, no matter the proffered explanation.

Preventing the severing of limbs, stopping the harvesting of organs, ending the persecution of children, eliminating abominable attacks on people with albinism – that is the purpose of our work here – first and foremost and at its end. 

Many courageous human rights defenders and activists have sought locally for solution.  National efforts have been shaped by defiant and courageous civil society.  UN human rights mechanisms too - treaty bodies, special rapporteurs, recommendations in the Universal Periodic Review, the High Commissioner and his office far beyond Geneva and New York all have reported on this, drawing our attention to the vector that witchcraft provides for those who wish to normalize, sanctify, justify that which can never been acceptable.

But we have not done enough.  For, as yet, we are without robust state-led response: judicial systems more often do not act to prevent, investigate or prosecute human rights abuses linked to beliefs in witchcraft. Communities are left without the resources of services, information and support that can help them turn the tide against toxic practices.  Ruthless religious entrepreneurs are left free to turn people’s fears to callous profit - selling costly and harmful exorcism services and related artefacts to people afflicted by tragedy, turmoil, deprivation, hopelessness.

When there are too many mouths to feed, a death in the family caused by illness such as AIDS may be conveniently blamed on, say, a stepchild, who deemed a witch by some ruthless “priest” can then be justifiably banished – reducing household costs – and leaving the victim abandoned.

Indeed, the state’s failure to provide essential life-saving services - health services; to support children in and through schools; the absence of capacity building for communities at high risk of catastrophic events – people left powerless to seek themselves power over their lives by any other means – this is what sits at the heart of our discussion.  When life’s socio-economic contexts leave people resource-less, means people are grieving without relief; are afraid without protection – then it readily becomes they who are and have always been most readily targeted and exploited by the charlatan.  Just in the past few weeks, we have witnessed political leaders – in every region of the world - ascribe extreme climate events variously as the magical punishment for HIV/AIDs, as the deity’s wrath for marriage equality or the shibboleth slap for voting for one particular political party over another.

Actually, the consistency of the patterns across all the world’s regions of imputing to the ethereal responsibilities that are all too alluvial, corporal, human, reminds us to not allow our needed focus on witchcraft to cast upon us a “spell” of the kind that has encircled us through cynical deployment of other terms - elastic, selective and open to ideological manipulation - terms such as “terrorism”.  

That we have not addressed comprehensively the rights of those who are victimized in the name of witchcraft is a failure of application, more than of conceptualization.  The building blocks of the human rights framework are not redundant here: – violation, victim, perpetrator, duty bearer, means of accountability, of redress, in a context of discrimination, oppression, poverty – aided by incitement, profiteering and failure in the rule of law and all too often masked as an exercise of what?  Cultural autonomy?

Let’s not get distracted.  This is common garden-variety human rights work, albeit ploughing long neglected and uncharted fields.  This is work we have done before: in respect of the rights, for example, of those who are victims of FGM, child marriage, rape in marriage and we have taken on “sorcerers” before - the fabricators of hate, bigotry and prejudice - whether enabled by religion’s manufacture – the KKK, Daesh - or by the ideologies of misanthropic intent such as fascism.  Though well over due, it is not too late to do far more…, for those victimised through witchcraft.

As ever, I would just ask that always we work to place - at the heart of our efforts - the voices of those who bear the brunt of this institutional failure, bigotry and fear.  And it is by their voices that we must be guided by and to their lived experience that we must be true. 

Thank you.