A Travellerspoint blog

Mob Justice, Witch Hunting and Universal Human Rights

So much to learn, so little time!


Hello everyone! I’ve been busy busy busy- so I apologize for the delay in updating. I finally got sick, after nearly five weeks in Tanzania. Not to worry, however, I’ve almost fully recovered. It’s amazing how many nasty ailments can overtake you in Africa- I suppose my sanitary American world helps me to forget the fragility of human life. Thus, feeling a little less vigorous, I had a very calm and relaxing weekend.

On Saturday, a group of fellow expat ladies and I ventured out to do a little site seeing and shopping. We arrived in the midst of Mwenge, a bus stand, to see a growing crowd surrounding a man with a torn shirt. They were yelling, angry and increasingly violent; we soon realized the accusation was serious: “thief! thief! thief!” They were pulling on his limbs, attempting to beat him, and the situation was growing dangerously heated. We scrambled away before things escalated, but I could tell that I’d just seen my very first glimpse of Tanzania’s mob justice problem.

“Mob justice” is sudden, abrupt, nearly uncontrollable violence against suspected criminals- usually thieves. This phenomenon resulted in 206 (often fatal) beatings between January and August 2005 alone. With approximately 1,200 Tanzanian citizens to every one Tanzanian police officer, law enforcement is often inadequate and unsuccessful in apprehending criminals. Therefore, citizens have increasingly taken matters into their own hands to ensure that proper “justice” is served. The 2005 Tanzania Human Rights Report by the Legal and Human Rights Centre and HakiElimu described a few of the more recent deaths by mob justice:

-A mob in the Shinyanga killed and set fire to a man accused of shoplifting
-A man was stoned to death in the Mwanza region for stealing a banana
-54 year old man was killed by a mob for allegedly stealing tomatoes
-A police officer was stoned to death by residents of the Tarime district as he attempted to return stolen cattle
-A 22 year old man was killed by villagers in the Kilombero district for physically assaulting his son

And so on, and so on, and so on. This section of the report does not include the killings due to belief in witchcraft, which are said to amount to more than 1,000 every year. Alleged “witches” are often tortured and/or killed by their own family, and although public witchcraft accusations are illegal, the government has been completely unsuccessful in stemming the killings. By the end of 2005, there were no reports of prosecutions in the killings of alleged witches.

Of course, even if the prosecutions for witch killings or mob justice were commenced, how does one try an entire community of people who didn’t see anything, and aren’t willing testify…nothing happened if no one saw it, right? That is not to say that true criminals should not be punished, but is it so American of me to think that even a tomato-thief deserves a fair trial? This illuminates one of the most horrifying problems with mob justice…many of the alleged thieves are innocent. It was fascinating and terrifying to see a mob-in-the-making that Saturday morning; after all, no one really believes it’s true until they see it happen.

All this about human rights reminds me of a very interesting book club article my Haki comrades and I recently discussed. “The Case for Contamination” by Kwame Anthony Appiah raised several extremely interesting points:

"The UNESCO Convention affirms the ‘principle of equal dignity of and respect for all cultures’ (What, all cultures – including those of the KKK and the Taliban?) It also affirms ‘the importance of culture for social cohesion in general, and in particular it’s potential for the enhancement of the status and role of women in society.’ (But doesn’t ‘cohesion’ argue for uniformity? And wouldn’t enhancing the status and role of women involve changing, rather than preserving, cultures?)"

So, what are “human rights?” In addressing his point about KKK and the Taliban, aren’t “freedom of expression” and “freedom of assembly” human rights? To what degree can we exercise our human rights...perhaps until our “rights” harm another person? Aren’t we waging war on Iraq, harming many different people? Is that a human rights violation? Can one set of laws, one general “human rights” ideology apply to ALL human beings? In consideration of our extreme diversity, how is this possible? Herbert Schiller claims that “it is the imagery and cultural perspectives of the ruling sector [i.e., the West] that shape and structure consciousness throughout the system at large.” Therefore, isn’t our concept and implementation of “human rights” some form of globalization, homogenization, and cultural imperialism?

Kwame also notes that we are “intolerant of intolerance” and that “you can care about individual freedom and still understand that the contours of the freedom will vary considerably from place to place. But we might as well admit that a concern for individual freedom isn’t something that will appeal to every individual." Muslim women should be liberated from their veils...but many Muslim women have no problem wearing veils, they actually enjoy it. Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is wrong, and should be completely eliminated...but the cultures that have practiced cutting for thousands of years would argue differently, and the cutting is perpetuated by the victims themselves. Is this because they are prey to the male-dominated system, or do they possess genuine conviction in the practice? Is genital cutting, with its hygienic, cosmetic and cultural justifications, comparable to the rampant American “plastic surgery”? Before you say: "NO!", don't women get breast implants to feel more sexually appealing? Isn't this because of a similarly male-dominated system? (whoa! such radicalism!!!!!!!!) Bingo.

Where does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN, UNESCO, and the world in general, draw the line between choice, and suffering? Right, and obligation? Culture, and torture? Does the answer perhaps lie in the exercise of "choice" and human will? How do you define choice?! What does this mean to me and my humanitarian, international-human-rights-law career goal? How do these ideas change the way I feel about the world? I think I feel my head spinning... If you’re interested, I’d like to hear your reactions/feedback/opinions on this matter.

As you can probably tell, I’m going to leave Africa with a lot on my mind. So much to learn, so little time! Sometimes I have to pinch myself and say, “calm down, you’re only 20 years old, it’s okay if you don’t know or understand this already"...but then again, I feel utterly swamped by the gravity of the world.

Posted by MegMc2003 01:55 Archived in Tanzania

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Oh, my. You raise some very interesting questions. It is also very good that you relate the "in-humane" treatment going on in the rest of the world to similar practices in the US. I DO think we are applying our Western way of thinking to those other cultures. We automatically assume that our way is the Right one, so that every thing Different is considered Wrong. I think it goes back to that damn imperialism you always talk about... we are impressing our values on the whole world. I wish we would just leave every culture alone, to blossom and work out there differences on their own, naturally.
Thanks for the brain work-out. Love you!

by Kelsabella

You've been tapping into the essential difference between modern and ancient constitutions, where political philosophers like Montesqieu argue that there should in fact be separate laws that allow for "cultural" exceptions - that is the only just way to govern a people. And sadly, if they are happier being able to punish someone if they refuse to participate in a cultural ritual or get there standard FGM, whose to say they're wrong.... its mind boggling to think about.

by tearsa

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