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Senior Research Seminar: Dr Thomas Strong (Maynooth University)

When Oct 25, 2019
from 04:15 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Edmund Leach Seminar Room, Dept of Social Anthropology, Free School Lane
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Dr Thomas Strong (Maynooth University)

Do Witches Have Human Rights?

A remarkable shift has occured in how we talk about witchcraft and sorcery.  Whereas these topics have long occasioned critical reflection on belief and reason, or cultural difference and human universals, the new discourse describes witchcraft as a “human rights” problem and focuses on harms associated with it.  This shift reflects the influence of a number of actors in both national and international settings, actors working with institutions of global governance to pressure national states to develop coherent legislative and social responses to witchcraft violence.  In September 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner convened its first ever expert workshop on witchcraft and human rights in Geneva.  A year later, the UN curated an exhibit of photographs about witchcraft directly outside the The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in the Palais des Nations where the expert panel had convened.  This paper presents an interpretation of this small exhibit and its imagery, highlighting the ways in which its representational sensibility symbolises the shift I have described:  from ‘belief’ to ‘harm’ as the dominant topos shaping the intelligibility of witchcraft as a social phenomenon. When articulated in the context of human rights discourse, “witchcraft” requires not so much understanding, as witnessing.  Thus, I examine the ways in which the photographs not only construct ‘victims,’ but also ‘witnesses.’  They depict bodies that ‘testify’ to their own suffering and survival, imagery which provokes a sense of moral responsibility in those who see it.  Drawing on fieldwork in highland Papua New Guinea, I also reflect on what the photographs can’t show:  witchcraft itself.  I describe some of the moral and epistemological challenges of representing and responding to witchcraft phenomena, returning to the aporia contained within this question:  Do witches have human rights?

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