Humanists speak out on witchcraft and violence against children at UN Human Rights Council

23 September, 2014

Humanists have spoken out about continued witchcraft allegations and persecutions (WAP) at two separate meetings of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The British Humanist Association’s (BHA) interventions, made together with the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), made clear how the proliferation of WAP is undermining efforts to combat violence against children, and that the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), which prioritises the inherent worth of the individual, cannot be fully realised while witchcraft allegations and persecutions remain rife and unpunished.

Amelia Cooper, representative of the BHA, made a statement detailing how WAP violate numerous categories of human rights covered by the VDPA, notably freedom from torture, the rights of the child, the rights of disabled persons and equality for women.

Torture, one of the most ‘atrocious violations against human dignity’, is a typical consequence of WAP. It is used as punishment, under the guise of an exorcism, or in eliciting a confession through a ‘trial by ordeal’. A recent report on witchcraft in Nepal detailed that ‘those identified as witches are: “beaten with hands and fists, with implements, with stinging nettles, forcefully fed excreta, burned, blinded and murdered.” Similar reported methods of torture are used in many countries where witchcraft belief and WAP prevails’.

Furthermore, WAP often results in the ostracisation of children from communities: in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, UNICEF reported that 23,000 children are forced to sleep on the streets following allegations of witchcraft, which in turn renders them more vulnerable.

Amelia was also able to challenge the commercialisation of witch huntings, exorcisms, and deliverance which has enabled the perpetrators of WAP to go unpunished, often acting with impunity. ‘[W]itchcraft pastors like Helen Ukpabio… profiteer from accusing individuals of witchcraft in what has become a lucrative trade. Ukpabio’s preaching alone is reported to have “contributed to the torture or abandonment of thousands of…children” and numerous horrific cases of children being set on fire, having acid poured over them, and being buried alive have been recorded in the region of Nigeria where her church is based.’

This commercialisation and advertisement of witch hunts and exorcisms, and the public fear it perpetuates, has contributed to the normalisation and advocacy of violence against children in many communities, which in turn undermines broader efforts to combat violence against children. Furthermore, such pastors use their wealth to stifle criticism through intimidation and legal claims.

Amelia welcomed the panel’s emphasis on prevention, the need to challenge mindsets, and the need to end traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. However, she called for legislative reform and real enforcement as necessary steps in eliminating the child abuse resulting from WAP. She urged the president to integrate addressing WAP into the discourse of the VDPA and its initiatives and for a targeted resolution to be drafted, calling for the end of WAP and the prosecution of those responsible for such abuses.


For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs, at or on 0773 843 5059.

Read the two interventions:

The UN Human Rights Council:

Vienna Declaration:

Witchcraft Accusations and Persecutions in Nepal, 2014 Report:

Unicef report:

Ukpabio’s preaching alone is reported to have ‘contributed to the torture or abandonment of thousands of…children’:

Read more on Ukpabio’s attempt to stifle debate:

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.