UN rights experts urge Malawi to protect people with albinism

by Kim Boateng Posted on February 11th, 2019

UN experts on Friday urged action against attacks on people with albinism leading up to Malawi’s elections in May.

This declaration comes on the heels of the killing of one person and the separate abduction of a baby.

Discrimination against people with albinism has been a problem in the past in Malawi—150 cases of these attacks have been recorded in the country since 2014, and experts are concerned that the violence could get worse with the coming election. The experts called for the government to “redouble its efforts” and “implement all necessary measures” to protect people with albinism.

The spike around election time is due to the false belief that ritual use of the body parts of people with albinism can bring good luck and political power. This leads to “torture, murder, discrimination and exclusion, including banishment from communities.”

These crimes are rarely prosecuted, which leads to a sense of impunity among the perpetrators.

Many believe the condition is contagious, and some believe the condition is caused by infidelity or punishment from the gods. Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that causes the body to produce little or no melanin. The incidence of albinism in Europe and the US is 1 in 20,000 while in sub-Saharan Africa it is 1 in 5,000-15,000.

Currently in Malawi the ratio is 1 in 1,800. The UN says that a full set of body parts from a person with albinism can sell for up to USD $75,000. Most of the Malawi population lives in extreme poverty, so some of these attacks come from close family members of the victims who are seeking wealth.

Malawi: UN experts urge action over albinism ‘atrocities’ in run-up to elections

The Government of Malawi must take immediate action to protect people with albinism after the killing of one person and the separate abduction of a one-year-old baby, say UN experts*. Since 2014, 150 cases of killings, attacks and other human rights violations against persons with albinism have been reported in Malawi.

“We urge the authorities to step up their investigations into these incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice,” the experts said.

“We call on the Government to urgently address the root causes of these attacks and to strengthen nationwide campaigns to raise awareness, conduct robust investigations and prosecutions in all cases, increase protection for victims, and finance and implement all necessary measures,” they stressed.

“Despite various steps to support people with albinism, the recent attacks demonstrate that the Government needs to redouble its efforts to end the ongoing atrocities,” the experts said.

The attacks come as the people of Malawi prepare for national elections scheduled for May 2019. The UN experts are alarmed that the situation could be made worse by the impending polls.

“Election periods can be a dangerous time for persons with albinism as this is when killings and attacks often spike, because of false beliefs that their body parts can bring good luck and political power when used in witchcraft-related rituals,” the experts said.

“Harmful practices related to witchcraft result in serious human rights violations, such as torture, murder, discrimination and exclusion, including banishment from communities,” they emphasized.

“These two incidents are part of a larger disturbing pattern in Malawi where ritual killings and egregious human rights violations of the worst kind are instigated specifically against persons with albinism. The attacks and violations are astonishing in their brutality.”

The threats and attacks have severely affected the physical and mental integrity of persons with albinism. “We call on the authorities to ensure the deployment of adequate police and law enforcement personnel to protect persons with albinism where they live.”

The pattern of attacks prompted the Independent Expert on albinism, to reiterate the need to tackle the concrete recommendations she made, following her visit to the country in 2016.

The experts further express concern at the reported backlog of cases of human rights violations and crimes against persons with albinism, as to date, there have been very few prosecutions, particularly those relating to more serious criminal charges, which gives an impression of impunity.

Image:  Expert on Albinism Ikponwosa Ero

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