A UN report released today documents the negative impact on human rights of some traditional and cultural practices in Liberia, including female genital mutilation, forced initiation into secret societies, accusations of witchcraft, trials by ordeal and ritualistic killing.
The report*, released by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, draws on in-depth interviews with victims, family members, community leaders, Government officials and civil society members between January 2012 and September 2015.
The report shows that such violations disproportionately affect women, children, elderly people, destitute people and those with disabilities. “Criminal offenses perpetrated through harmful traditional practices often go unpunished due to their perceived cultural dimensions,” the report notes.
Some 58 per cent of Liberian women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice widely used by a secret society called Sande, says the report. Women and girls from poor households are twice likely to experience FGM than those from wealthy ones.
The report stresses the negative consequences of FGM, which is generally performed without anesthesia, on the health and physical integrity of these women and girls. “In addition to the extreme pain… the lack of medically sterilized equipment and facilities increases the likelihood of infection and lasting physical damage, and may even lead to death,” says the report. Girls’ education is also disrupted as they are often removed from formal schooling to attend “bush school” and undergo FGM.
The report also documents cases of abductions, forced initiations, torture and rape by members of another secret society called Poro.
Non-members considered to have transgressed the society’s rules, for instance by “trespassing” on sacred Poro ground or remaining outdoors during Poro activities, have also at times been forcefully initiated, tortured and, in two documented cases, gang-raped.
The study also notes that “accusations of witchcraft are common in Liberia, and often have devastating consequences for the accused, who may be subjected to trial by ordeal, ‘cleansing’ or ‘exorcism’ rituals, expulsion, ostracization, and even death.” In many cases documented in the report, trial by ordeal amounted to torture, both physical and psychological, and in some cases even led to death.
“The authorities often hesitate to investigate or prosecute cases involving trial by ordeal, due to the perceived cultural dimensions of the practice. As a result, criminal offenses committed during trial by ordeal go unpunished. This has generated a widespread culture of impunity among traditional actors,” the report says.
The UN study also documents nine cases of suspected ritualistic killings, including three in August and September 2015. The latest case was in Ganta on 29 September, when a motorcycle driver was killed, allegedly for ritualistic purposes. This sparked riots on 30 September during which a man accused of this alleged ritual murder was killed by an angry mob.
“These events illustrate the lack of faith many Liberians have in the capacity and willingness of local authorities to take action in cases of ritualistic killing, and of the formal justice system to hold perpetrators accountable,” says the report.
“This situation raises serious concerns in view of the 2017 national elections when the number of ritualistic killings is likely to increase the report warns.
“Liberia’s human rights obligations must take precedence over any local practices considered to be ‘cultural’ or ‘traditional’ where such practices are incompatible with human rights principles,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
“State authorities must actively work on preventing these violations, ensuring the prosecution of alleged perpetrators and protecting the victims, by providing them with all necessary medical and psychosocial support, and ensuring that they have access to effective remedies and redress,” he added. He also urged the authorities to fill in the existing legal and policy gaps, including through the revision of the Hinterland Regulations which date from 1949. These regulations established separate legal structures for those deemed as “civilized” and “native” Liberians.
“While the report takes note of the progress made by the Government in combatting such practices, the recent incident in Ganta shows the urgent need to strengthen the formal justice system. If Liberia wants to make a good and positive use of its rich and abundant culture and traditions, it has to align some of these practices with its international human rights obligations,” said Farid Zarif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMIL.
Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)