The last time we checked in on Papua New Guinea’s efforts to counter its epidemic of sorcery-related killings, the country was considering making changes to its Sorcery Act of 1971 in order to make it easier for authorities to punish both witchcraft practitioners and those who murder them. Unfortunately, those legal reform efforts seem to be stalled, especially in light of the sudden death of respected parliamentary leader Joe Mek Teine, who was leading the anti-sorcery effort. As a result, the killings continue apace, to the point that the country’s national police force has pronounced itself virtually powerless to stem the tide:
We are trying to counter that and basically the rule of law stands – you can’t take someone else’s life, regardless of whatever your grievances are. We’re making that known. But we are spread thinly around the country. We can’t be everywhere and in some instances, we are overpowered and actually some of these killings have happened right in front of our eyes. But we really can’t do much.
As we noted in our earlier post on the topic, this is a really tricky issue. No one can legislate away centuries of belief, yet focusing solely on the murderous side effects of imaginary acts is obviously not doing the trick. So what can a central government do to discourage its citizens from believing in hocus-pocus?
I’ve been trying to think of an American analogue to PNG’s situation, but it’s tough. One situation that popped to mind, which has long been the foundation of one of my favorite legal dilemmas, is how states have handled cases involving faith healing. Juveniles have occasionally perished for want of simple antibiotics, because their parents’ religions don’t allow for any medical intervention besides prayer. Yet though some of these cases have resulted in manslaughter convictions, the government has never taken any action to discourage the opposition to medical science among the faithful.
My fear for PNG is that the belief in sorcery can only be stamped out through early education, which means waiting at least a generation for real change. But given the country’s educational trends, that may be an optimistic projection.