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Pathways through fear: regulating sorcery accusation related violence

14th November 2017

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Miranda Forsyth is an Associate Professor at RegNet and also a Fellow at SSGM in the College of Asia and Pacific at ANU. The broad focus of Miranda’s research is investigating the possibilities and challenges of the inter-operation of state and non-state justice and regulatory systems.

At present her focus is on examining these issues in the context of both the protection of traditional knowledge and introduction of western intellectual property regimes, and also the regulation of sorcery and witchcraft related violence in Melanesia. Her research has had a strong focus on Vanuatu to date, but in the last few years she has also researched other countries in the Pacific islands region, particularly PNG, Fiji and Samoa.

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This blog is based on research conducted under a multi-year research project investigating sorcery accusation related violence in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Many different types of fear are involved in the expression of this form of violence, and so it is a useful site to investigate the relationship between regulation and fear. Sorcery accusation related violence is a contemporary and pressing issue in PNG. In the past few weeks alone at least five separate cases occurring in Enga, Lae and Port Moresby have been reported in the PNG national newspapers and on social media.

This in turn has provoked a range of public responses, from those who argue that sorcery is a real and legitimate fear to those who condemn the violence, argue sorcery does not exist, and that people who believe in it are “backwards” and “primitive”. There are also many who are genuinely confused, such as this one Facebook post asking “Can someone answer me whether we do have sorcerers and witchcraft living among us in real life or not?” For those who do believe in sorcery and witchcraft, these beliefs may give rise to true fear that at any time a person or their loved ones may be subject to a supernatural attack. One academic commentator, Adam Ashforth, refers to this as “spiritual insecurity”.

Public officials were initially slow to condemn the violence following this latest rash of reported cases. However, possibly due to the pressure of public statements by active anti-sorcery accusation related violence campaigners, a number of statements have been made by government officials in recent days. The main message from such officials has been that the violence is against the law and must be stopped, and failure to do so will result in prosecutions. For example, the Police Commissioner Baki is reported as stating that he “has called on police men and women throughout the country to arrest anyone who assaults, injures, tortures or kills another person over sorcery accusations”.

Such statements demonstrate the government is adopting a regulatory response based on a framing of sorcery accusation related violence that excludes a recognition of the fear underlying such violence. In other words, it is an instance of the state defining what are illegitimate sources of fear. In a country with as little policing capacity as PNG though, it is difficult to enforce laws that are completely out of step with public perceptions of justice. Such an approach also misses the opportunity to address fear as part of a regulatory response, and risks undermining the state’s legitimacy as ensuring its citizens’ safety. For example, in a rally held last week in Port Moresby, the organisers are reported as claiming that “the PNG justice system has neglected to acknowledge that sorcery is real in PNG” and calling upon the government to “come down and see the real issue that is affecting our people [namely sorcery]”.

The question arises as to what regulatory response is appropriate that would take the levels of fear seriously, but also not in any way excuse or encourage sorcery accusation related violence. It is helpful to consider Valerie Braithwaite’s observation: “We need to believe in the pathway out of fear that is open to us – we need to believe it will bring benefits, is fair and consistent with our core beliefs, or else fear is likely to turn to anger. Furthermore, we need to believe we are capable of doing what is required to follow the pathway. Confidence and a sense of efficacy are necessary to move beyond fear.”

One way to build such pathways is to seek to understand some of the sources of fear that provoke violent reactions, and to design regulatory responses to deal with these. Of course, this approach is premised upon the state being willing to recognise sources of fear that it considers illegitimate. Preliminary findings from our research find that the fear that leads to sorcery accusation related violence is often fuelled by factors such as: confusion about whether or not misfortune or death was really caused by sorcery or not, and how to determine this; feelings of helplessness in the face of misfortune; lack of clear guidance from authority figures about how to respond to misfortune; breakdown in channels of communication between families and within communities; and unresolved tensions and disputes within communities.

Paying attention to these factors indicates that developing pathways through fear do not require a headlong epistemic confrontation about whether or not sorcery is real, thus adhering to Braithwaite’s suggestion of being consistent with core beliefs. It may rather involve the development of action plans with clear steps for facilitating dialogue before and after accusations emerge, the need for clear statements from public officials and community leaders about violence not being an appropriate pathway to deal with concerns about sorcery; and the sharing of positive community responses to help other communities to model their own pathways.

Support for such an approach can also be drawn from the fact that in many parts of PNG, sorcery beliefs and practices do not result in accusations and violence directed at individuals accused of sorcery. Finally, this focus on processes as a way forward also reflects a common pattern in response crafted by those non-state leaders seeking to limit this form of violence in PNG. Our research has found that such local solutions often involve processes with a series of steps, such as a five point or seven point plan. One hypothesis is that such pathways work by providing an authoritative way forward, ideally supported by relevant local leaders.

In summary, preliminary research findings indicate that ignoring fear when crafting a regulatory response to a phenomenon such as sorcery accusation related violence and focussing entirely on deterrence is unlikely to be successful. Taking fear into account does not require supporting (or attacking) any particular epistemological position or belief system. But it does require trying to take people’s experiences and concerns as seriously as possible.

As an anthropologist, Peter Gescherie argues, “One way or another, the full weight of the context has to be taken into account if we want to understand people’s obsessions and anxieties”. Pathways through fear can be constructed through developing social infrastructure to allow people to work through their fears in staged processes, assisted by leaders of many sorts (community, state, religious etc). These pathways may be built at different levels of scale, and ideally will reinforce one another.

Miranda Forsyth is an Associate Professor at RegNet and Convenor of the Master of Criminology, Justice and Regulation, now accepting applications for semester one, 2018.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet