An international consortium of human rights groups, children's charities and experts, including religious and secular organisations, has urged US president Barack Obama to speak out on the widespread human rights abuses that take place due to the belief in ‘witchcraft’ during his tour of the continent.
In the open call to Obama, published today in the Times of London, the groups described the African tour as "an opportunity to demand urgent action to tackle the widespread, and systemic, violations of human rights that take place across the Continent due to harmful practices connected to the belief in ‘witchcraft’. Such beliefs are strongly held by many in the countries that he will visit – Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania – and they often lead to some of the most horrific human rights abuses imaginable. Vulnerable individuals and groups in society are most at risk, including older women, street children and people with disabilities."
The collaborative statement grew out of a call by Leo Igwe of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, who has campaigned to rescue children branded as witches in Nigeria for many years, and was organised by the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), which monitors and documents the cases of such abuse that take place around the world due to such beliefs. According to Gary Foxcroft, Executive Director of WHRIN, “Many of the cases of human rights abuses that we record are about as horrific as one could imagine. Stories of children being tortured and abused, elderly women being set on fire and people being murdered for their body parts are relatively common. Such cases are clearly the tip of the iceberg and the true scale of the problem remains unknown”.
"The US president is uniquely influential and well-respected in Africa. We truly hope that he can speak out in each country that he visits to help raise awareness of the impact that such beliefs have on human rights so that solutions may be found to prevent more such atrocities from taking place”, said Foxcroft.
The statement was signed by the American Humanist Association and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).
Bob Churchill of the International Humanist and Ethical Union said, "Violence linked to 'witchcraft' beliefs is a complex and under-reported problem. Yet despite the difficulties in identifying and reporting 'witchcraft'-based crimes, hundreds of victims have already been recorded this year alone and these cases may represent a much larger number. There are numerous human rights problems around the world, Obama has already addressed in some small way the assault on gay rights in Africa on the current tour. None of that detracts from the necessity of bringing to light the threat posed by beliefs in witchcraft, often to very vulnerable people with horrific consequences, and largely unrecognised internationally."
The full statement and signatories list follows below.
As President Obama commences his visit to Africa, we call upon him to use the tour as an opportunity to demand urgent action to tackle the widespread, and systemic, violations of human rights that take place across the Continent due to harmful practices connected to the belief in ‘witchcraft’. Such beliefs are strongly held by many in the countries that he will visit – Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania – and they often lead to some of the most horrific human rights abuses imaginable. Vulnerable individuals and groups in society are most at risk, including older women, street children and people with disabilities.
Of many examples that have been catalogued, in April 2013 the body of the 14 year old boy, Nkhumeleni Mukhado, was discovered in a village in South Africa. His skull and genitals had been removed. His is just one of many similar tragic stories where people are killed so that their body parts can be incorporated into concoctions used in what is labelled as ‘witchcraft’. It is often believed that, through ingesting such concoctions, the receiver will gain greater wealth and power.
In Gambia, which borders Senegal, Amnesty International have documented over 1000 cases of suspected ‘witches’ being rounded up by President Jammeh’s special guards who then tortured the suspects and forced to drink potions that caused them to hallucinate and behave erratically. Many were then forced to confess to being a “witch”. In some cases, they were also severely beaten, almost to the point of death.
In Tanzania, according to the Legal and Human Rights Centre, an average of 500 people were murdered each year on suspicion of ‘witchcraft’ between 2005 and 2011, whilst numerous people with albinism have been murdered in cold blood for their body parts.
Such beliefs and practices self-evidently constitute a significant obstacle to the reputation, peace and prosperity of the region. They inhibit economic growth, investment and trade; weaken democratic institutions; and prevent hundreds of thousands of Africans from reaching their true potential. President Obama should demand that Africa’s political and faith leaders, and the wider international community, do more to put a stop to the horrific human rights abuses that continue to scar this great Continent.
All Party Parliamentary Group for Street Children
American Humanist Association
Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales
Basic Rights Counsel
Bethany Children’s Trust
Centre for Human Rights and Development
Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS)
Consortium for Street Children
Greenwich Inclusion Project
International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)
The Pagan Federation
Stepping Stones Nigeria
Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN)
Kirsty Brimelow QC
Russell Brown MP
Hugh Davies OBE QC, 3 Raymond Buildings
Professor Susan Edwards, University of Buckinghamshire
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
John W. Morehead, Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy
Leo Igwe – Nigerian Humanist Movement
Dr Christina Oakley Harrington
Paul Stockley – Development Worker
Craig Whittaker MP
Louisa Young – Author
Zoe Young – Film Maker