Dr Nicholas Herriman
First published in The Age on 17 April, 2013.
Peter Neale, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, made international headlines several days ago. Responding to a reporter's question last week, he vowed to repeal a law that makes "black magic" illegal.
Generalisations about black magic in PNG present a problem. Indeed, Australia's closest neighbour boasts over 600 language and culture groups.
According to Jean Zorn, former principal legal officer of PNG's Law Reform Commission, many of the country's culture groups have beliefs and practices associated with a kind of magical power which you can acquire. We could call this “sorcery”. Typically, "Big Men" can acquire sorcery legitimately. Feared and respected, such Big Men may use it, for example, to punish a wrongdoer or target an enemy in war. Sorcery may be deemed illegitimate if not used by a Big Man.
Another set of beliefs holds that certain people, through forces outside their control, attain powers of black magic. Such people are alleged to be witches. Typically female, they have, in certain places and at certain times, fallen victim to killings.
Words like “witch” or “sorcerer” merely constitute English translations of local experiences and ideas. Their use is limited.
But we can confidently state that deaths are often attributed to the malicious use of black magic. In some cases, the black magic might be thought of as "long range artillery" coming from unknown people in a distant location. Often, however, the alleged practitioners of the black magic are intimates of the victim. For example, the alleged sorcerer or witch might be the victim's relative or neighbour.
A recent example attracted worldwide attention. In February, graphic photographs of the burning of Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old mother, circulated on the internet. Local residents thought she caused the death of a local boy. In response, the boy's relatives killed her.
Such killings are widespread in PNG. In recent years hundreds of female "witches", who are often assumed to cause AIDS deaths, have been attacked. In the province of Simbu, Oxfam estimates that between April 2000 and June 2005, "92 people were accused of sorcery and were severely injured or killed".
The killings of alleged black magic practitioners have been analysed in terms of various phenomena. These include the disruptive effects of Christianity, the spread of AIDS, discrimination against women, and the marginalisation of men.
Whatever the cause, local residents perceive so-called witches and sorcerers as a problem that needs solving. As in many other parts of the world, local residents expect that legislators will sympathise with, or even assist, the community to deal with the perceived threat of witchcraft or sorcery.
Thus, in 1971, PNG's parliament passed the "Sorcery Act". This law does two important things.
First, it allows those who kill "sorcerers" the possibility of mounting a legal defence. According to Zorn, it makes more viable a defence on the grounds that the killer was provoked.
Second, the "sorcerers" themselves can be jailed for up to eight years. This includes a person who “professes to be a sorcerer”, “does any act of forbidden sorcery”, or “unlawfully administers to another person or to an animal… any substance that has been subjected to an act of sorcery”.
So what has been the effect of this law? It depends who you speak to.
Generally, NGOs (including the UN and Amnesty) have labelled the laws as discriminating against women, who account for a disproportionate number of anti-sorcerer killings.
Some religious officials have openly labelled the belief in witchcraft irrational. Yet presuming witchcraft to exist, others have called for its elimination.
Those involved with the law in PNG seem to have two responses. First is to say that a law against the black arts is crucial, if only to encourage local people to pursue witches and sorcerers through legal means and to stop taking the law into their own hands.
Alternatively, politicians and judges might say that the belief is backward, as was the case last week. The law, by this reckoning, serves to legitimise actions against sorcerers.
What would be the effect of repealing the law? It is difficult to know as it hard to say what "ordinary people", in so far as they might be found, think on this matter.
Repealing the law might show potential killers of alleged witches and sorcerers that their actions will not be countenanced. The effect might thus be to show that there is no legal justification for killing such people.
Then again, potential killers, despairing of the opportunity to pursue so-called witches and sorcerers legally, may take matters into their own hands.
It seems more likely that repealing the law will make little difference. Clearly, the law has not stopped the killings. People have continued to take matters into their own hands rather than pursuing legal channels. And this is probably because the law (if potential killers were aware of it) was viewed as inadequate.
Whichever way it turns out — law or no law, more killings or less — the problem is not merely an issue for our neighbour. It is a problem for Australia, which has an ongoing commitment to PNG. This includes Australian Defence Force peace monitoring in Bougainville. AusAid also has a longstanding involvement in PNG, spending more than $493 million in 2012-13. A significant component of this lies in its commitments to health and HIV/AIDS, and law and justice.
Dr Nicholas Herriman is a lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe University. You can listen to his podcast 'The Audible Anthropologist' on iTunes U.