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Witchcraft and human rights

Independent Expert on albinism

In numerous countries around the world, witchcraft related beliefs and practices have resulted in serious violations of human rights including, beatings, banishment, cutting of body parts, and amputation of limbs, torture and murder. Women, children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities particularly persons with albinism, are particularly vulnerable. Despite the seriousness of these human rights abuses, there is often no robust state led response. Often judicial systems do not act to prevent, investigate or prosecute human rights abuses linked to beliefs in witchcraft. This institutional failure perpetuates impunity.

Beliefs and practices related to witchcraft vary considerably between different countries and even within ethnicities in the same country. There is overall limited understanding of beliefs in witchcraft, how it may be practiced in some cultures, and why. The Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions states in the mandate’s 2009 Report that human rights abuses carried out due to beliefs in witchcraft have “not featured prominently on the radar screen of human rights monitors” and that “this may be due partly to the difficulty of defining ‘witches’ and ‘witchcraft’ across cultures - terms that, quite apart from their connotations in popular culture, may include an array of traditional or faith healing practices and are not easily defined. The fact remains, however, that under the rubric of the amorphous and manipulable designation of ‘witchcraft’, individuals (often those who are somehow different, feared or disliked) are singled out for arbitrary private acts of violence or for Government-sponsored or tolerated acts of violence.” (A/HRC/11/2, 2009). 

The victims

The exact numbers of victims of such abuses is unknown and is widely believed to be underreported.  At the very least, it is believed that there are thousands of cases of people accused of witchcraft each year globally, often with fatal consequences, and others are mutilated and killed for witchcraft-related rituals. The literature asserts that these numbers are increasing, with cases becoming more violent, the practices spreading, and new classes of victims being created (Adinkrah 2004, Bussien et al. 2011, Cohan 2011, Gardini 2013, Geschiere 2008, Horowitz 2014, Jorgensen 2014), although the difficulty in proving such claims quantitatively is acknowledged (Forsyth 2016). These practices are also increasingly a challenge for countries in the global North, mainly within migrant communities (Edwards 2013, Garcia 2013, Powles & Deakin 2012, The Economist 2015).

Reporting within the UN

Witchcraft beliefs, practices and related consequences have been reported in the UN by various high level officials and experts—although from a specific perspective and often in a specific country and context. These include the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on Violence against Children, the Special Rapporteur (SR) on violence against women, its causes and consequences, the SR on freedom of religion or belief, the SR on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the SR on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Some experts have also sent communications to states on the matter including the SR on the independence of judges and lawyers, as well as the Independent expert on technical cooperation and advisory services in Liberia. 

The Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism has also broached the topic in a number of her reports , and considers that a more holistic approach to the phenomena is necessary.

In 2021, during the 47th session of the Human Rights Council, Member States adopted a resolution on the elimination of harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks.  This is the first resolution of its kind, calling for a more a holistic approach in addressing harm resulting from accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks. The resolution recognizes the important work undertaken by the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism on this subject matter. 

Activities and Concept Notes

Note on COVID-19 and harmful practices
July 2020

Concept note on the Elimination of harmful practices: Accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks (Word) 
(Also in Français)
March 2020

2017 Experts Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights

The workshop, which took place on September 21-22, 2017 in Geneva, was ground-breaking as the first-ever to discuss witchcraft and human rights in a systematic and in-depth manner at the UN or international level. It brought together UN Experts, academics and members of civil society to discuss the violence associated with such beliefs and practices and groups that are particularly vulnerable. It highlighted the various manifestations of witchcraft beliefs and practices, including accusations, stigma and ritual killings, before looking to identify good practices in combatting the phenomena. The meeting provided the opportunity to discuss whether current legislative frameworks are sufficient to meet State legal duty to prevent, punish, investigate and provide remedies for harm caused by beliefs in witchcraft.

The workshop marked an important step towards mainstreaming the issue into the UN Human Rights system, whilst providing impetus and practical guidance to the numerous international and regional mechanisms, academics and civil society actors that have been working to raise awareness and understanding of these challenging issues.

Key information about the event

Outcome document/report

Visual archives 

Organizers

This event was organized by the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, the Director of the Witchcraft and Human Rights Network (WHRIN), and Dr Charlotte Baker of Lancaster University. 

Co-organizers and Experts

Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children, and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.