One step forward and several giant steps back. That’s how the U.N.’s human-rights office described the reintroduction last week of the death penalty in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the concurrent repealing by parliament of the country’s bizarre 1971 Sorcery Act. Straight off a script for Game of Thrones, the act’s preamble recognized that various forms of sorcery existed and criminalized the practice of “evil sorcery” or sanguma. While disputes over sorcery seldom came before the national judicial system, they are common in traditional village courts, where the belief that somebody is practicing sanguma has been used in defense of murder.
The law’s demise, and the reintroduction of the death penalty as a bid to curb sorcery-related killings, followed international outcry over a series of gruesome deaths earlier this year: the burning at the stake in February of a young mother in front of large crowd in the city of Mount Hagen, the decapitation of a retired school teacher in the autonomous region of Bougainville when I visited PNG in April, and the kidnapping and torturing with hot iron of six women and one man in the Southern Highlands province during the Easter weekend. “[This is] to stop this nonsense about witchcraft,” Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said on announcing his intention to scrap the law in parliament.
But according to Richard Eves, an Australian anthropologist who specializes in PNG, political will alone shouldn’t be seen as a magic bullet against sorcery-related violence. Despite 19th century colonial attempts to eradicate it, sorcery is hardwired into the traditional culture of the country and has long been a quotidian fact of life across the socioeconomic and geographic spectrum. “There are more than 800 different cultures in PNG, and belief in sorcery is pervasive across most of them,” Eves tells TIME. Scant policing, he says, helps the practice to thrive. “Legislation and good policy don’t necessarily mean an end to the problem because the ratio of police to population is quite low. When you’ve got an armed mob screaming for blood, there’s nothing much a few policemen can do. And the fact is that police in PNG are just as likely to believe the accused are guilty as charged.”
Most accusations of sanguma in PNG stem from unexplained or early deaths from diseases like HIV/AIDS, where family members seek scapegoats to mitigate their grief. The immolation in Mount Hagen of 20-year-old Kepari Leniata was a textbook example: it followed the death, apparently from rheumatic fever, of a 6-year-old boy the accused walked past on the street.
Witch doctors who claim to cure sickness or chase out evil spirits with “good sorcery” also play a part by perpetuating and profiteering from superstitions. “My mother had cervical cancer, and the first thing the family did is say it was witchcraft,” says Angela Pora, a manager at Mount Hagen’s Highlander Hotel. “They took her to a witch doctor who used herbs and smoke, but she died anyway. I wanted her to go to the hospital, but who would listen to me? They would have turned against me if I tried to intervene.”
In addition to a larger, better-armed, better-trained and better-paid police force, Eves recommends the standardization of sanctions that discourage accusations of sanguma, explaining that not all of PNG’s many cultures respond to it violently. “During my fieldwork in [the province of] New Ireland, I learned that accusations of sorcery are very rare there because people are very fearful of being taken to village courts and sued for libel.”
Grassroots initiatives can also make a difference. In restive Simbu province, the epicenter of witch hunts in PNG, doctors at Kundiawa Hospital are helping the families of deceased persons understand the medical cause of their deaths and stave off calls for payback killings. Clergymen are also training parish volunteers to deflect and douse sanguma accusations at funerals and to raise the alarm anonymously via text messaging when a witch hunt is imminent.
Leads can also be taken from Africa. In Tanzania’s Sukumaland region, a place described by the Independent newspaper as “witch-killing country” in 2009, killings were reduced by up to 90% by educating villagers about aging and gender issues through songs and plays. And in a northern region of South Africa, the number of witch killings fell with the introduction of pensions for elderly women, who were hitherto considered burdensome and vulnerable to witch hunts initiated by relatives seeking the early inheritance of their property.
Academia also has a role to play in bringing to an end throughout the world this form of social terrorism that was stamped out in Europe at least two centuries ago. On Wednesday, Eves is co-convening a three-day human-rights conference on sorcery-related killings at the Australian National University in Canberra. It will see anthropologists, lawyers, church leaders and representatives from the U.N. rub shoulders with policemen, public prosecutors and policymakers from PNG, as well as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where witch hunts are also prevalent. “The reintroduction of the death penalty was a simplistic response to a very complex problem,” Eves says. “We are hoping to set in motion a research agenda that looks at the problem from a holistic perspective and develop far more sophisticated responses to sorcery-related violence.” For those caught up in PNG’s witch-hunting terror, those responses can’t come too soon.