In most parts of Africa, the negative impact of religious laws on democracies and human rights systems is clear and compelling – from the wars, conflicts and anarchy in Somalia, Uganda, and in the Sudan, to the threats posed by Islamism to the Arab Spring in North Africa and the peaceful coexistence of people in Nigeria; from the witch hunts in Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Kenya, Guinea Conakry, Mozambique and the Central African Republic, to the wave of homophobia sweeping across different countries with overt and covert support from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Vatican and other religious agencies that foster laws across the globe.
How we address this ‘sensitive’ issue of religious law – particularly here at the Human Rights Council – will go a long way in determining the future of democracy and human rights in the world. I will discuss this theme under three sub headings – witch hunts, homophobia and religious bloodletting.
Witch hunts: Witch hunting is going on in contemporary Africa due to the rule of religious laws in the region. The tragic death in the UK of 15-year-old Kristy Bamu has shocked many across the world. Bamu, a Congolese, was tortured to death by family members who believed he was a ‘witch’ and that he should be suffered not to live as stated in the bible.
What Bamu went through in the UK is what many children, women and elderly persons across Africa are suffering at this moment. The only difference is that while those who tortured and killed Bamu have been brought to justice, in most cases those who perpetrate such atrocities in Africa go scot free. I believe those who murdered Bamu must have done so out of obedience and faithfulness to the religious teaching and law as enshrined in Exodus 22:18-which says ‘suffer not a witch to live’.
Also inspired by religious laws are those persecuting alleged witches in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso, the Congo, Central African Republic, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Angola. Even where there are enabling state laws to address the problem, in many cases the religious laws in the minds of the people overwhelm, and take precedence over state laws. Or the existing law will be twisted and misinterpreted to convict the alleged witch and acquit the accuser.
Hence it should not surprise anyone that theocratic agencies like the Vatican, the Church of England, the OIC and its member states have not come out openly and categorically to condemn accusations of witchcraft and spirit possession sweeping across Africa and Asia and among African and Asian overseas communities. One wonders why the so called Africa group has maintained a criminal silence over the witchcraft related torture and killings going on in several African states.
Homophobia: And now compare the deafening silence and indifference of African states to combating witchcraft related abuses with their vehement and strident opposition to recognising the human rights of gay people. The reasons often cited to justify and sanctify homophobic legislations in the region are as follows: That homosexuality is unbiblical, un-Koranic and ungodly. In other words, the African states have these sacred texts, not their constitutions, as their grundnorm.
Recently, many African states and most of the OIC member states walked out of the session convened by the council to discuss violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With that walk out, they have made their position clear: they do not want these human rights violations to be discussed or addressed. They should not be held responsible and accountable. In other words, they are saying that the human rights abuses on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity should continue, because that is in accordance with the ‘divine’ law in these countries.
Religious bloodletting: Lastly, religious laws are rarely adopted in a civil and democratic manner. They are not proposed in a manner whereby we can discuss or debate them, accept or reject them, revise or amend them. Instead they are imposed on the people by force and sometimes by bloodshed.
In my country, the tree of Sharia law has been watered with the blood of too many Nigerians as well as non-Nigerians. And the same can be said of Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and Uganda, where Joseph Kony and his militants are killing, enslaving and raping their way to imposing Christian law in the country. In Nigeria, the bloody campaign for the rule of Sharia is still going on at the moment. Today, the Islamist group, Boko Haram, is the latest face of this bloody campaign. They kill at the slightest provocation or perceived offence.
There is something fundamentally undemocratic about religious laws. Religious laws originate from questionable sources which humans are not allowed to question or inquire into, or they do so at great cost to themselves. Unfortunately, the religions have refused to tell the world the truth about the origins of these laws which they insist must guide and govern human lives, and direct and determine human decisions – including the ones we make here at the Human Rights Council.
In a democracy, people have the right to know the truth not only about those who govern them but also about the laws that are used to govern the society. But as long as religions continue to lie, and hold humanity in the dark about the source or sources of their dogmas and doctrines, religious laws will remain social and political liabilities to democracies and human rights systems across the world.