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Malawi: People with albinism face total extinction – UN Expert calls for urgent response

LILONGWE / GENEVA (29 April 2016) – The United Nations Independent Expert on the rights of persons with albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, today warned that the atrocities faced by persons with albinism in Malawi render them “an endangered people group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done.”

“Persons with albinism, and parents of children with albinism, constantly live in fear of attack. Many do not sleep peacefully and have deliberately restricted their movement to the necessary minimum,” the human rights expert said at the end of her first official visit* to Malawi.

“The frequent involvement of close relatives in cases of attacks is highly disturbing, and persons with albinism are unable to trust even those who are supposed to care for and protect them,” Ms. Ero noted. “Consequently, persons with albinism in the current context of attacks are locked in a spiral of fear and poverty.”

The UN Independent Expert described the situation as “an emergency, a crisis disturbing in its proportions.” According to the police, 65 cases have been recorded since late 2014, and at least two further critical incidents reportedly occurred during her visit.

“Given the relatively small population size of people with albinism in Malawi - reported to be a little less than ten thousand - attacks against a few of them constitutes a danger to all of them,” she stressed.

“It is clear that an urgent and coordinated response from the Government, civil society and development partners working in strong partnership with each other is required,” she noted while stressing the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, which includes the involvement of organizations of persons with albinism at every step, where the process cannot be led directly by them.

Ms. Ero welcomed the launching of the Government’s Response Plan of 2015 and commended its content. However, she noted, “the absence of resources attached to this plan has drastically delayed its implementation and such an emergency situation needs an emergency response.”

“Court sentences as handed down to convicted criminals do not always reflect the gravity of the crime,” she said. “As pointed out by various stakeholders during my visit, stealing a cow may attract a higher penalty.”

“The early return of suspects to their communities – whether due to the use of bail, fines or low judicial sentences - increases the fear in which persons with albinism live, sends a message of impunity to affected communities and increases the risks of mob killings,” she added.

The expert recommended “training for police, prosecutors and magistrates to increase knowledge of the current legislative framework applicable to these cases, cooperation between the police and the Department of Public Prosecutions,” as well as “adequate resources for the newly appointed special prosecutor.”

Ms. Ero pointed out that, although the amendment of relevant legislation is required, more immediate measures are also necessary such as a judicial direction that cases be handled only by professional magistrates and through the ongoing revision of the Sentencing Guidelines.

She also commended the protection measures adopted by community police and some traditional authorities as well as the support provided by communities to their members with albinism. “The quick intervention of neighbours during attacks has in various cases led to the rescue of persons with albinism and to the arrest of perpetrators,” she said.

“Addressing the root causes of attacks, in particular why they are happening, is indispensable to eradicating them. It is worrying to note that witchcraft beliefs and practices are widespread in Malawi, although often a taboo topic,” Ms. Ero stated.

“Malawians have been taken by surprise by the recent increase of attacks against persons with albinism,” she said. “Yet, discrimination against persons with albinism has a long history in the country and is well rooted in beliefs as well as harmful traditional and cultural practices, including that persons with albinism do not die but simply disappear, and the practice of infanticide at birth on the pretext that the baby was stillborn.”

The Independent Expert will produce a full report and recommendations to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017.

(*) Check the Independent Expert’s full end-of-mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=19903&LangID=E

Ms. Ikponwosa Ero (Nigeria) was designated in June 2015 as the first UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism by the Human Rights Council. Inspired by her experiences as a person with albinism, Ms. Ero spent the last seven years working on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism. As international advocacy and legal officer of Under The Same Sun, an NGO with a focus on albinism, she participated in multiple activities and panels at the UN in Geneva and New York. She has extensive experience in research, policy development and advocacy in the field of albinism. She is the author of numerous papers and articles on the issue, including with regards to the categorisation of persons with albinism in the international human rights system. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Albinism/Pages/IEAlbinism.aspx

Read the Independent Expert’s first report to the UN Human Rights Council: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/31/63

The Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Check the special website: “People with albinism: not ghosts, but human beings - http://albinism.ohchr.org/

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Malawi: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/MWIndex.aspx

For inquiries and media requests, please contact:
In Lilongwe (during the visit): Arnaud Chaltin (+41 791096872 / achaltin@ohchr.org)
In Geneva (during the visit): María Margarita Lema Tomé (+41 22 917 92 48 / mlematome@ohchr.org)
In Geneva (before and after the visit): Arnaud Chaltin (+41 22 917 9188 / achaltin@ohchr.org) or write to albinism@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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