Open Letter to the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights

16 Oct

Dear High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay

This open letter to you is about one of your recent reports, entitled ‘Persons with albinism‘ (A/HRC/24/57), dated 12 September 2013. Your summary gets to the point: “In some communities, erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition put the security and life of persons with albinism at risk.” You also refer to ‘ritual’ killings and attacks to which many persons with albinism have been subjected over the last six or seven years, particularly in Tanzania. You remark that “[t]he information on the various cases collected by OHCHR came from multiple sources, but the level of verification varies in each case.

It is this level of verification that especially interests me. Earlier in the report you stated that “[t]he collection and verification of cases of ritual attacks is a challenge due to the secret nature of witchcraft rituals, the inability and/or fear of victims’ relatives to report such incidents…[etc].” I would suggest that, from the earliest killing reported in the international media, widely believed to emanate from the BBC, all witchdoctors and other people reputed to be engaged in witchcraft, or related activities (very different sorts of activity among which the BBC makes no useful distinction), have been thus implicated in the attacks.

I hardly need to remind you what that means. Many people, in Tanzania and other countries, have been persecuted by mobs, even lynched, because of the belief that they were engaged in witchcraft or something similar. Indeed, what may have been the first ‘ritual’ killing of a person with albinism, reported in the Legal and Human Rights Center in their 2006 report, is a brief mention of two men who were lynched by a mob; the brief mention is, essentially, about the killers themselves, not their victim. Your report does not mention the Tanzanian Witchcraft Ordinance of 1928, which proscribes public accusations of witchcraft without providing evidence that the accused actually practiced witchcraft or claimed to possess witchcraft powers, etc, but I’m sure you are acutely aware of the risks that those merely suspected of witchcraft, and even those investigating attacks on persons with albinism, face.

I needn’t labor the point; witchdoctors have very good reason to be secretive, especially when everyone points the finger at them following the (rether frequent) occasions on which the media sees fit to implicate them. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten earlier stories about the ‘skin trade‘ in Tanzania, ‘devil worship‘ in Kenya and various other phenomena more notable for the vast number of column inches dedicated to them that to the substantive content of the various reports that came to be written about them.

Your report notes that victims, their relatives and fellow community members are afraid to report killings. But it’s only natural to fear those who are thought to have magical powers, and worse, to be so ruthless that they would attack people with machetes to maim and/or kill them, or even to instigate such a killing. However, could people actually be more afraid of the absolute demons they read about in the press than anything they have ever experienced? Could they be afraid of something they have never seen, but which they are assured by everyone who has read these reports, exists among them and wields a terrible power over them?

As you say, levels of verification are important. The vast quantity of media coverage may one day yield up something that constitutes evidence of such devotion to superstitions that it leads to maimings and killings; the small handful of sources of information on which the media depends, and on which your preliminary report now depends, may have some checkable, some verifiable source of information that lies, however hidden, behind it. Perhaps this could be used to carry out an investigation into some of the killings, at least the ones for which there is even a minimum level of documentation.

But I would suggest that the media itself has often been secretive, a bit ritualistic, even a bit fetishistic, at times. They constantly refer to things as if they have evidence, words like ‘official’ are used (although few journalists, if any, seem to view the police, or any other commonly used informants in such cases, as a possible source of anything except further unsubstantiated information, ridicule, stories about corruption, predictable stuff), they write as if the very dogs on the streets know that all these attacks were carried out by witchdoctors who paid ‘middlemen’ to ‘obtain’ body parts of people with albinism, for which ‘rich and powerful’ people pay large amounts of money to ensure that they become more rich and powerful.

It’s a very credible story, in a sense, given the many other incredible stories we are told about Africans or, in this case, Tanzanians; a story of superstition, poverty, bullying by rich people, incompetence by ‘officials’. But it’s a story for which the media provide little or no evidence. Tanzanian people may well have been convinced that witchdoctors are rich and powerful, and that they themselves could become rich and powerful by working for them, or for their rich and powerful clients. But, aside from the plentiful supply of gossip, where is the evidence? Or should I ask what constitutes evidence in these cases? If the sheer number of media reports constituted evidence, all Tanzanian witchdoctors (and those thought to be witchdoctors) would be locked up, perhaps even condemned to death. But none, as far as I know, have been executed (unless some have been killed by mobs). Few have even been through the courts.

I truly hope any evidence that exists that sheds light on these attacks on people with albinism is going to be handed over to you by those who have generated so many media reports based on what seems to them to be so certain. Your preliminary report suggests that little new evidence, with a reasonable level of verification, has yet been made available to you. It is to be hoped that all will be revealed in the final report, after a thorough investigation, one that looks critically at the assumptions we have been making for around seven years without putting a stop to the attacks, apprehending the attackers, or protecting the victims and those around them.

As things stand right now, perhaps there is something wrong with our assumptions? The practice of ‘witchcraft’ was banned without that preventing further attacks. Over 170 people were allegedly arrested, and let go (at least, I hope they were let go). Apparently over 70 of them said they had been told by witchdoctors to bring them albino body parts. Could this be an important lead? Or could it suggest that everyone reads what has been written in all the papers for months, or talks to someone who does? None of these people were convicted. That could be because there was no evidence, aside from the fact that they were witchdoctors, suspected of being witchdoctors, associated with witchdoctors, etc.

Or maybe they were not involved, or not even completely aware of what was going on, aside from what they read in newspapers or heard from people who read them, or claimed to? The media calculated and recalculated the figures for victims and deaths: there were 4 in December 2007 but 20 by January 2008, without any media report that I could find accounting for any of these new attacks by providing basic details; who were all these victims? Generally we don’t even know their names, sometimes not even their gender. Was their body discovered somewhere, or was there even a body? You may think these are silly questions, because the media eventually agreed by some time around 2012 that there were over 70 deaths. But how starkly all this contrasts with reporting on murders in Western countries, where some of them become household names; at least we get the basic details.

At first, it was claimed there were 71 deaths if you included 17 from Burundi, seven from Kenya and three from Swaziland, but it is asserted that there were 71 deaths in Tanzania by the end of 2012, without that qualification, and by 2013 the BBC raised that to 72 deaths in Tanzania. I suggest that the running tally of deaths has become a bit confused and that various reports are mixing up important details. Perhaps all I am lacking is access to ‘official’ sources, to which some refer, but if there are official sources I believe they should be named, or at least described. Otherwise we don’t know if this is an instance of secrecy, sloppiness or exaggeration.

According to the media accounts that I have looked at there were well over 30 deaths that attracted enough media interest for something about the incident to be recorded, the age, location or some circumstance, such as ‘skinning’ of the victim. There were well over 70 documented attacks. Not over 70 killings, as the media eventually agreed, but as I said, they could be keeping their cards close to their chest. But attacks continue. Media coverage has waned considerably since 2008 and 2009, but I have tried to account for documented victims in the linked table and I would welcome additions to it.

You will, no doubt, have read a lot already, possibly coming across odd recurrences and even more odd contradictions, even convenient, but unsubstantiated juxtapositions. You will probably even notice that predictions, such as the fear that lots of persons with albinism would be maimed and killed before the 2010 Tanzanian elections turned out to be unfounded? It doesn’t say that in the mainstream media, as far as I know, but nor could I find any articles about a noticeable uptick in attacks. Documented victims peaked in 2008, but again in 2011. There was a big dip in 2009 (without a corresponding dip in media coverage), with a further dip in 2010, by which time media coverage began an exponential decline that has continued for several years. I quite accept, of course, that my data is limited to what is available, free of charge, online; the media may have access to other information to which I am not privy, but to which, I hope, you are privy.

To conclude: you mention ‘erroneous beliefs and myths, heavily influenced by superstition’ in your analysis of attacks on persons with albinism. I would add to that a set of erroneous beliefs and myths that are heavily influenced, even promoted, by the media. If people believe in the great power of witchdoctors, and believe that they can get paid a lot of money to carry out a maiming or a murder, they are quite wrong, and it behooves the media to make that completely clear, now. But why would ordinary Tanzanians even believe such a thing? Perhaps they deserve to be condemned for being stupid enough to commit a terrible crime on the stuff of rumor and gossip. But ordinary Tanzanians themselves are not the source of all rumor and gossip, nor are they the sole spreaders of rumor and gossip.

If it is the case that not all witchdoctors are so powerful and so ruthless, that not all ‘middlemen’ (and what ordinary Tanzanian could not, going by media descriptions, fill that role?) are so greedy or so gullible, even that most ordinary Tanzanians living in rural communities (and we are frequently told about levels of superstition in rural areas) are not so cowardly or so despicable as to turn a blind eye, or to conspire with other parties, as to maim and kill members of their own community or their own family ‘because of their superstition’, or worse, because of lust for money, then the entire investigation of the attacks needs to begin again.

Why? Because the received view of these attacks needs to be called into question. We simply don’t know much for sure about witchcraft, a ‘trade’ in body parts, or a ‘rich elite’ that is willing to pay large sums of money for goods and services provided by witchdoctors; we don’t know who we are looking for, what they are like, how many they are, aside from the suggestions provided by the media.

I believe  it is vital for us to understand the root causes of attacks and discrimination, and your report refers  to these among your recommendations. However, the distinction between the causes of the attacks and the causes of the discrimination is just as vital. The attacks are a relatively new phenomenon, even various media cited sources agree on that. But the discrimination goes back decades, perhaps centuries, and affects the millions of disabled people living just in Tanzania alone (an estimated 2% of the population), to this day, not just the tens of thousands of persons with albinism (or hundreds of thousands, depending on which article you read).

Media reports, and other reports depending on media reports, do not constitute a solid foundation on which to base further investigations. I am sure you are aware of that, but what I have read so far, in the media and in other reports, is highly questionable. Yet I see virtually the same material in your preliminary report. It is not my intention to advise you, only to urge you that the current body of data on attacks on people with albinism may not yet be very reliable.

I look forward to a report that results in the protection of persons with albinism, brings perpetrators of violence to justice and ensures that these attacks never happen again. Following the publication of the report, persons with albinism, those associated with them, those associated with attacks on them, and all other innocent people, will enjoy those human rights that have, up to now, been denied them.

In addition to compiling a web page of documented attacks, to which I have provided a link, I have various other data that I have collected. If I can be of any assistance to you or your officers, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me.


Simon Collery


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