The Practice of Ritual Killings and Human Sacrifice in Africa

Tools of a traditional healer, CC Image Courtesy of Bertramz on Wikimedia

Despite the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights’ that provides an individual is entitled to respect for his life and integrity of his person, ritual killings and the practice of human sacrifice continue in several African countries. These practices entail the hunting down, mutilation, and murder of the most vulnerable people in society, including people with disabilities, women, and children. Reports indicate that killings of this nature occur in Nigeria, Uganda, Swaziland, Liberia, Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Because of the secrecy involved in ritual sacrifices, a majority of these incidents go unreported and uninvestigated. Anti-sacrifice advocates face an uphill battle in combating these rituals because the practices are largely denied and touch on cultural underpinnings, resulting in an ideological conflict between protection of human rights and respect for the beliefs and practices of other cultures.

Those who practice sacrifice and ritual killings believe them to be acts of spiritual fortification. Motivations to carry out these acts include the use of human body parts for medicinal purposes and the belief that human body parts possess supernatural powers that bring prosperity and protection. In Uganda, reports indicate that child sacrifice is a business where the wealthy pay witch doctors to conduct sacrifices in an effort to expand their fortunes. In Swaziland and Liberia, politicians allegedly commission ritual killings to improve their odds in elections. In parts of South Africa, ritual killings are culturally accepted, and the practice is often not reported by community members.

Questions of cultural relativism may arise with respect to ritual killings because they may be linked with religious beliefs. Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights guarantees freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion. The article also states that “No one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms.” While a broad reading of Article 8 guaranteeing the right to religious freedom could theoretically permit ritual killings for religious reasons, the “subject to law and order” clause may be invoked to limit the free practice of religion with respect to ritual killings. Furthermore, reading the Charter in its entirety supports a prohibition on ritual killings. For instance, Article 5 states that every individual shall be “entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person.” If ritual killings were permitted as an acceptable exercise of religious freedom, the door is opened to many of potential human rights violations on the basis of religion.

In response to recent reports of ritual killings allegedly conducted by some traditional healers, other healers have spoken out against ritual killings, arguing that those practices are a disgrace to the history and culture of African medicine men and healers. In March 2012, Sierra Leone’s union of traditional healers met to put forward their campaign against ritual killings. Since the union’s founding in 2008, their mandate has always been to stop indiscriminate killings and afflictions of the innocent.

Activists rallying against ritual killings are calling for stronger protections, including legislation that would allow for the regulation of traditional healers. Some countries, such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Nigeria have taken steps to begin regulate traditional healers, but regulation is not widespread. Appropriately regulating traditional healers could provide necessary protection for individuals seeking care from traditional healers and could hold healers accountable for unlawful acts, such as ritual killings. Furthermore, regulation could provide protection for traditional healers, for example, with respect to intellectual property rights.

As they have done for centuries, traditional healers continue to fulfill an important role of providing beneficial medical services to communities. However, the practice of ritual killings and human sacrifice goes against the fundamental human rights norm of ensuring respect for an individual’s life and integrity of person. Although the African Charter guarantees the right to freely practice one’s religion, ritual killings are not permissible on this basis. The positive contributions of traditional healers to many African societies should not be compromised by the practice of ritual killings. Activists and governments can ensure respect for the human rights of all individuals by working to ensure transparency and accountability among traditional healers.

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