By Miranda Forsyth
Centre for International Governance & Justice, ANU
It’s time to move beyond sensationalist and moralistic portrayals of the violence associated with witchcraft and sorcery. Torturing, burning, killing and banishing individuals accused of witchcraft or sorcery is a significant problem across the world. But media coverage is regularly premised on the tired dichotomy of the civilized West and the primitive “other”. Common headlines such as “it is the twenty-first century and they are still burning witches” assumes such behavior is determined by some inevitable evolutionary timeline. But on the ground it is often the stresses of modern life that are driving the escalation in witchcraft violence. Nor is belief in magic, evil and unexplained (and unexplainable) phenomena limited to the global South: a Gallup survey in 2005 found seventy five percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief.
It is more helpful to focus on the issue of what should be done to address this violence. There are significant challenges in determining the best approach at practical, legal and political levels that require debate going beyond the sensational. It is also crucial to recognise the actions of those working at the coalface of these intensely difficult areas in ways that are supportive rather than undermining.
The law reform commissions of South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea have all been seriously engaged in thinking through how to regulate in this area. At the heart of the issue is the stubborn reality that the populations in these and many other countries often sincerely believe that sorcery or witchcraft is responsible for the misfortunes that afflict them and their community. Such beliefs need to be taken seriously by regulators and policy-makers, or people will continue to take the law into their own hands through vigilante justice as documented by a series of United Nations reports. The difficulty lies in working out how such concerns can be addressed by a state justice system constrained by procedural and evidential frameworks. Possible options lie in creating mutually supporting relationships between customary and state justice systems, utilizing lower level courts that may have more flexible procedures, as well as mediation and restorative justice approaches.
Despite the overwhelming demand for “law” to fix sorcery related problems, it is also clear that any way forward must be multi-sectoral and involve meaningful engagement with communities. One such approach is currently being trialed in Papua New Guinea where in July this year the National Executive Council approved the Sorcery National Action Plan. This adopts a comprehensive approach focusing on five key areas: care and counselling, education and awareness, legal, health and research. The action plan envisages a holistic response that targets both the immediate goal of cutting the link between accusation and violence, and long term goals involving education about both human rights and alternative explanations for misfortune.
It is still too early to determine the ultimate effectiveness of this plan, but local Papua New Guinean movements against sorcery related violence are also emerging. Moved by graphic images of the torture of several women and a man in the Southern Highlands Province posted onto Facebook in the months previous, the Catholic Bishop of Mendi called for a conference on Sorcery Related Violence that took place on 28 October 2015. Over 150 people accepted his invitation and representatives from government agencies, police, courts, churches, women’s groups and community leaders gathered to devise their own, local response to the violence. This included creating pathways for communities and police to overcome the fear of retaliation and lack of responsiveness that currently hinders the operation of the criminal justice process.
There was also support for criminalizing the activities of so-called diviners who are often called upon to identify suspected sorcerers, often with fatal consequences. Such people were referred to as “a scourge on society” who “fan the flames” of sorcery related killings in a recent judgment of the National Court of PNG. In this case two men were each sentenced to twenty one years imprisonment with hard labour for a sorcery accusation related murder, demonstrating the justice system does sometimes lead to justice. These recent events in Papua New Guinea indicate that there is much to be gained in focusing on what can and is being done about sorcery accusation related violence, instead of the usual hand-wringing of the international media.