The call has been made on the final day of a Canberra conference that's been looking at the growing problem.
One of the delegates is the Regional representative for the UN Human Rights Commission, Nancy Robinson.
Canberra correspondent Karen Barlow asked her for the organisation's response to sorcery related killings in Papua New Guinea.
Presenter: Karen Barlow
Speaker: Regional representative for the UN Human Rights Commission, Nancy Robinson
ROBINSON: We consider it a very troubling phenomenon and that really goes to the heart of the international human rights framework as a human rights violation against women's right to life, a right not to be tortured, and also to lead a life without violence. These are issues that we're aware of, exist in many countries, but we feel that it's inadmissible that by virtue of cultural practices women's right to life is being violated. And we feel that the government, the authorities need to prosecute and investigate those crimes, identify who are the perpetrators, and make it clear that this is not tolerated. Because it is not just a cultural practice, it is right to life and in the criminal jurisdiction, it's murder. So therefore there's a serious issue regarding women who are accused of being sorcerers, the killings that result in addition to the torture, is against international human rights law. The government of PNG has signed on to many conventions and therefore is obligated to assure the protection, the state in every case has the duty to protect, and we feel that that duty to protect is failing. We need to embark on an action plan that will be effective in providing protection to these women as a state duty, the state as a duty bearer in making sure that the human rights of the population, the right to life, security, physical integrity are protected.
BARLOW: It is happening to men too but we've heard evidence at this conference the ratio is more like five to one against women. So the UN has a particular focus on what's happening to women in this regard?
ROBINSON: Yes we have had the visit of a Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, make a visit to PNG, and she established immediately the link between sorcery related killings and violence to gender-based violence. And we would urge the government to address this issue by putting and implementing the gender-based violence legislation so that this will be a priority in other words. It is linked immediately to gender-based violence because it targets the most vulnerable in society, and those are usually elderly women without a male kin or son in the area and they have no defence, the communities will not come to their defence, on the contrary.
BARLOW: We've heard evidence of horrific cases, is this really though systematic violence?
ROBINSON: Yes it's systematic violence that is taking place against women on all levels. In this particular moment it's the sorcery related killings, but that doesn't end it, there's a lot of domestic violence, and there's of course the structural violence against women which means that they've been excluded from participation in national life, they have an unequal status, they're not represented very much in parliament, etc. It's the touchstone let's put it that way for structural condition, oppression, marginalisation of women in PNG and elsewhere in the world.
BARLOW: What's the state of Papua New Guinea's obligation, is it responding appropriately?
ROBINSON: It has initiated some legislative reform. There was just the repeal of the Sorcery Act on May 28th 2013, and in this conference there were members of that Law Commission here with us. So that's a positive step, it's something that permits sorcery related killings to be addressed with a criminal jurisprudence, criminal law, rather than putting the onus on the sorcerer. So it does provide protection. However implementation is the big obstacle because you may have a law, but then if you don't have the police capacity to enforce it, or if the police themselves view the situation of sorcery related killings with indifference, then we still have a big issue of how to address impunity, because as been said, it's not how stiff or how high the penalty is or how harsh, it's if you know the consequences will lead to your imprisonment and if you will face justice. And in this case as was mentioned in this conference, they know, those who perpetrate this violence, know full well they get off scott free. This has to change, this is called the fight against impunity, and this is where the legal system has to become, have an action plan to better address this phenomenon.