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)

Following Up: More Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

In my last post, I mentioned the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists and 57 people in total were killed for registering their dissent against the Ampatuan family. The Ampatuans had maintained a stranglehold on political power in Maguindanao through corruption and intimidation.

The prosecution’s strongest witness in the ensuing trial has recently been gunned down. It’s rumoured that the Ampatuans are involved. See the news links below:

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20100624-277293/Maguindanao-massacre-witness-killedprosecutor
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20100628-278050/Four-suspects-tagged-in-Maguindanao-massacre-witness-killing
http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/06/28/10/ampatuans-linked-gunman%E2%80%99s-death-says-roque

The Filipino Culture of Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

Today I was finally going to publish my introductory post, the one that says “here I am in the Philippines and this is what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks. Working at the Ateneo Human Rights Center has been an enriching experience, I’m learning a lot, and I think I’m finally adapting to the culture…”

All of that is true. But today I want to write about something else: three local journalists killed in less than a week, just for speaking their minds.

Gunned down in public. Even though such killings have happened many times before, I can’t believe the news.

I didn’t know what to say after the first two journalists were killed, hence the absence of a blog post on the subject. I was shocked. I still am, especially now that a third journalist has died, but I feel an obligation to write something on the subject to draw people’s attention to the news since it hasn’t been making headlines in Canada.

The first killing happened five days ago. Desidario Camangyan, a radio reporter who had criticized the government for turning a blind eye to illegal logging practices, was shot while hosting an amateur singing contest. His wife and son were in the audience.

Less than 24 hours later, Joselito Agustin, another radio broadcaster, was shot and killed while on his way home from work. Like Camangyan, Agustin had spoken out against government corruption.

This weekend, Nestor Bedolido, a newspaper reporter, was shot and killed as he was buying cigarettes from a street vendor. Belodido was supposedly behind a number of scathing exposes written about an allegedly corrupt politician in Davao del Sur.

So far no one has been arrested and all but one of the suspects are unidentified.

The killings bring the number of journalists killed in the Philippines to 107 – and that’s just in the last nine years, since President Gloria Arroyo took power in 2001. Since the inception of democracy in 1986, 140 have been killed in total.

Before posting some news links and a few thoughts, I should mention that all of this comes only seven months after the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists lost their lives for taking political action, for merely deigning to defy a local “politician-warlord” who had maintained a stranglehold on power through corruption and intimidation.

News links are below (links are posted first; my thoughts are underneath), with a Wikipedia entry on the Massacre that links to stories published in late 2009. About a week and a half ago, an activist came into our office with pictures of the victims of Maguindanao – they were by far the most shocking images I have ever seen.

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20100621-276729/Another-journalist-killed
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/world/asia/21iht-phils.html
http://cpj.org/2010/06/another-radio-journalist-killed-in-the-philippines.php
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/topstories/topstories/view/20100615-275715/Radioman-shot-dead-in-Davao-Oriental
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maguindanao_massacre

So that’s the news. Here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, given the circumstances, there’s little doubt that these killings are politically motivated. The two most recent ones meet the profile of the typical Filipino political killing: a gunman walks up to the victim in the middle of the street, fires, and rides away on the back of a motorcycle that’s waiting nearby. Too many journalists, lawyers and activists have been killed this way, usually after expressing criticism of the government or left-wing political views. Too few of the men and women behind these killings have been brought to justice – there have only been a handful of convictions.

Second, it’s disheartening that even after a UN Special Rapporteur report on extrajudicial (that is, illegal and political) killings in the Philippines, a local commission-of-inquiry report on the matter, the creation of a national Commission on Human Rights, and the creation of a national police task force, extrajudicial killings continue to take place – and the perpetrators seem as bold as ever. Some of the gunmen don’t even hide their faces – a telling sign that they know they can count on a culture of impunity.

Like the Maguindanao Massacre, I guess this series of killings reflects what is often the reality of human rights legal work – you can set up all the commissions and send all the rapporteurs you want, you can write reports, you can call people out in the press, but things will not change overnight. That said, there are signs that extrajudicial killings generally are tapering off – there are fewer per year now than there were in 2006, when there were 209 in total. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is slow and incremental change.

This week, though, it feels like change cannot come soon enough.

I want to end on a positive note. The Ateneo Human Rights Center is doing a lot to help prevent extrajudicial killings and give prosecutors and investigators the tools they need to obtain convictions. In addition to the academic research I’m doing for the Center, I’m involved in two really interesting projects to this end. First, I’m involved in the planning of a national public awareness campaign; staff from the Center will be holding public forums on extrajudicial killings at over 60 locations all across the country. Second, I’m helping with the creation of Multi-Sectoral Quick Reaction Teams, which are locally-based collectives of legal and human rights experts who come together to provide support to victims when an extralegal killing takes place.

I feel extremely privileged to be able to help out with these initiatives. Hopefully, along with this week’s bad news, they’ll get people thinking about how to dismantle the infrastructure of impunity that allows violations of rights to life and free expression to keep happening.

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