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African Countries Move to Counter Trade in Albino Body Parts

FILE - Albino Said Abdallah, who lost his left hand in an attack, is seen recovering at Morogoro hospital, Tanzania, May 7, 2010.
FILE - Albino Said Abdallah, who lost his left hand in an attack, is seen recovering at Morogoro hospital, Tanzania, May 7, 2010.

The United Nations human rights office reports political action is growing in Tanzania, Malawi, and Burundi to clamp down on the horrific trade in albino body parts. While welcoming these moves, the agency says much work and commitment will be needed to stop the trade and protect the people being maimed and killed.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says all three countries — Tanzania, Malawi, and Burundi — have some kind of action plan underway or under consideration. It applauds, in particular, a newly unveiled five-point plan in Malawi, which it says is striking for its detail and adoption of new laws needed to protect people with albinism.

U.N. Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville says political commitment to abolish the sale of albinos' body parts seems to be increasing in all three countries but cautions that there is still a long road ahead.

“Whether that really is going to make a significant difference in the number of cases and in changing the mentality that is driving this awful trade — you know, we are not there yet… At the end of the day, it is only when people stop having their limbs chopped off and stop being murdered that we can talk about positive results,” says Colville.

The U.N. human rights office has received reports of more than 200 cases of attacks against people with albinism, mostly children. They include killings and mutilations from 15 countries between 2000 and 2013. It is believed the number of victims is greatly underestimated as many attacks and killings go undocumented.

Myth of magical powers

The horrific trade is driven by the false belief that body parts from albinos possess magical powers capable of bringing riches. It also thrives because of the vast amounts of money to be made.

For example, Colville notes a man in Malawi was paid $6,500 for attempting to kidnap his 11-year old niece. He says the man, who recently received a two-year prison sentence, was one of at least three people involved in this operation.

“You will see obviously a chain of people involved in this awful hideous commerce. So, who is paying these large sums of money is not very clear. But, at least in Tanzania, it does seem to get worse during election periods. So, that would imply… that politicians are involved to some extent,” says Colville.

Tanzania is the country where most killings of albinos have taken place in recent years. General elections are set for the end of October, and this seems to have ushered in a new wave of attacks.

President Jakaya Kikwete has promised to put an end to this and not to allow the attacks to escalate as they have done in previous years.

In June 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution aimed at preventing and combating discrimination and violence against people with albinism.

In another move to keep this issue on the international stage, the Council on Thursday approved the appointment of an "independent expert" whose job will be to promote the rights of albinos and make sure they are treated as equal members of their societies.

Colville says this important new mandate will help give a voice to these people and contribute to their protection.