Refugee law and … witchcraft law?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

When I first learned I would be wWitchcraft Actorking with the Refugee Law Project’s legal aid clinic, I had in mind several types of issues I might be dealing with: refugee status determination and appeals, tenancy law, family law…

Witchcraft certainly wasn’t on the list.

Yet, during interviews and information sessions held prior to and during a recent twelve-day field visit to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Western Uganda, witchcraft was one of the most pressing legal issues raised by authorities and refugees alike. In fact, when our team of eight legal officers and counselors first arrived at the settlement to introduce ourselves to the Camp Commandant’s office, Uganda’s Witchcraft Act was prominently displayed in various locations, apparently to serve some kind of deterrent effect.

Far from an expert on legal pluralism, I have been racking my brains to remember what my first year Foundations class might have had to say about reconciling something like witchcraft with a modern legal system like the one in place in Uganda. For someone who doesn’t really believe that people can turn into dogs or snakes, or eat another person from a distance, it is hard to imagine how these kinds of allegations could form a basis for any legal action at all. (So I wasn’t surprised to hear from Kyangwali Settlement’s Assistant Camp Commandant that lack of evidence is the principal reason for the few prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act!)

Nonetheless, the practice of witchcraft, whether one believes in it or not, is widespread throughout Uganda’s refugee community and beyond. A number of my clients cited instances of witchcraft as the main threat to their security in Uganda. Child sacrifice for the purposes of witchcraft is an ongoing problem that has recently received a lot of media attention here in Kampala, after the kidnapping and beheading of three young boys.

Correspondingly, the reality of witchcraft has slowly been incorporated into Uganda’s common law legal system. I am told that use of witchcraft is one basis for a provocation defense for murder in Uganda’s criminal law. The Witchcraft Act sets out penalties for those suspected of practicing witchcraft, or for being in possession of items used for witchcraft.

Upon further investigation, our team in the field discovered that a number of the alleged instances of witchcraft in the settlement were actually cases of children dying from malaria, an extremely common and largely preventable and treatable illness. So once again, I am left wondering about the adequacy of a purely legal response to many of the realities refugees here are facing. The whole witchcraft thing is beyond me, but has definitely provided me with some interesting – and very unexpected! – food for thought.

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

2 responses to “Refugee law and … witchcraft law?”

  1. ludoviclangloistherien says:

    Haha! Very interesting post! It can be quite remarkable how ancient customs blend with modern reality. Africa is a very interesting and strange place.

  2. perriravon says:

    Super interesting Kelly… Thanks for this!

Leave a Reply

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.