Pan-African Parliament Guidelines seek an end to witchcraft accusations

by Damon Leff (Director: Legal Services, South African Pagan Rights Alliance)

This article was published in The Wild Hunt on  April 6, 2023.

PRETORIA, South Africa – In July 2021 The United Nations Human Rights Council draft Resolution 47, titled “Elimination of harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks,” called on Member States to condemn harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks that result in human rights violations, to ensure effective protection of all persons in vulnerable situations likely to be subjected to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks, and to promote bilateral, regional and international initiatives, in collaboration with relevant regional and international organizations, aimed at achieving an end to witchcraft accusations and consequent human rights abuses.

Significantly, Resolution 47 emphasised that states “should carefully distinguish between harmful practices amounting to human rights violations related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks, and the lawful and legitimate exercise of different kinds of religion or beliefs, in order to preserve the right to freely manifest a religion or a belief, individually or in a community with others, including for persons belonging to religious minorities”.

See UN Council adopts Historic Resolution Condemning Harmful Practices Related to Accusations of Witchcraft and Ritual Attacks for full coverage of the 2021 UN Council resolution.

In March 2023 the Pan-African Parliament released its own “Guidelines on Accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks: towards eliminating harmful practices and other human rights violations,” at the joint sittings of the Committee on Gender, Youth, Family and People with Disability, the Committee on Health, Labour and Social Affairs, and the Committee on Education, Culture, Tourism, and Human Resources at the PAP headquarters in Midrand, South Africa. In May 2019, the Committee on Justice and Human Rights and the Rules Committee of PAP adopted a resolution authorizing the drafting of the guidelines.

The 2023 document defines ‘witchcraft’ in context, identifies two broad classifications of harmful practices related to the manifestation of belief in witchcraft; witchcraft accusations and ritual attacks, and offers recommendations on both legal and non-legal measures the Member States could adopt to combat ongoing human rights violations.

The Pan-African Parliament also draws appropriate attention to the need to balance competing rights in order to avoid criminalising freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and culture.

The definition of ‘witchcraft’ in context

The PAP Guidelines defines the term ‘witchcraft’ as “an umbrella term encompassing a complex configuration of beliefs and associated practices varying between countries, ethnic and religious groups, and individuals, but generally agreed, contextually, across the continent of Africa, as involving the belief that a person, through utilizing a spirit medium is able to cause harm to, or change the fortunes of others”.

The document clarifies that “While a broad definition of witchcraft is presented, it is important to highlight that these guidelines do not prohibit witchcraft. Rather they seek to eliminate the harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks (HPAWR). For the purpose of this preliminary report and guidelines, harmful practices in the context of HPAWR are understood as acts or omissions primarily stemming from and including accusations of witchcraft and/or ritual attacks which deny a person their dignity or integrity and violate that person’s human rights”.

Creating an enabling legal environment

The Guidelines highlight the following concerns for legal enforcement against human rights abuses stemming from HPAWR:

  1. inadequate legislation on trafficking and unlawful possession of human body parts,
  2. inadequate legislation addressing accusations of witchcraft,
  3. the inefficiency of criminal justice systems, in some States, to bring perpetrators to justice,
  4. the absence of victim rehabilitation and livelihood restoration programmes to ensure comprehensive access to justice for victims,
  5. the absence of effective oversight of the activities of traditional and faith healers, and
  6. inadequate social protection systems.
Non-legal and community-based interventions to combat HPAWR

The Guidelines further offer several suggestions for community-based interventions, including:

  1. in collaboration with media and civil society, the development of comprehensive education and awareness raising strategies that address erroneous beliefs that perpetuate HPAWR, and which highlight the human rights implications of HPAWR,
  2. the regulation of traditional medicine, and the formal registration and licensing of traditional health practitioners,
  3. support for traditional and religious leaders within affected communities to discourage HPAWR and promote positive cultural practices, and
  4. the development and implementation of legal, medical, psychological and socio-economic support programmes for victims of HPWAR, including those who have been forcibly displaced within and across borders.

The PAP Guidelines appear comprehensive in attempting to deal with accusations of witchcraft and related harmful cultural practices on the African continent. The Pan-African Parliament concludes its report by encouraging the international community to continue to advocate for the victims of HPAWR, and to advance the discourse on witchcraft both generally and in relation to harmful religious and cultural practices.