The first United Nations human rights expert on albinism today issued an urgent appeal for coordinated action in southern and eastern Africa to tackle the upsurge in attacks against persons with albinism.
Albinism is a congenital condition which, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), is most common in sub-Saharan Africa affecting one in every 5,000 to 15,000 persons, compared to one in 17,000 to 20,000 in Europe and North America. In several ethnic groups in the sub-Saharan region, estimates are as high as one in 1,000 to 1,500 persons.
“Persons with albinism are amongst the most vulnerable persons in the region,” noted the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, in a news release.
“After centuries of chronic neglect of their plight, they have been relegated to the fringes of society where stigma and discrimination in every aspect of their lives have been normalized.”
Ms. Ero, who has albinism herself, warned that “an apparent increase in demand for body parts of persons with albinism” has been reported in the run up to elections in several African countries.
“Today, their woe has been compounded by a constant fear of attacks by people – including family members – who value their body parts more than their life,” she stressed. “I am deeply concern at the highly disturbing pattern of increase in attacks when elections occur in the region.”
Ms. Ero called on affected governments “to carry out as a matter of urgency specific measures particularly through regional and international collaboration to bring an end to these abhorrent crimes.” She also urged “all political parties to ensure that their candidates and supporters are not associated directly or indirectly with such grave human rights violations.”
Since the UN Independent Expert took office on 1 August, attacks have been reported in six countries in the region. These include the case of a 56-year-old man with albinism from Kenya who was attacked with some of his body parts hacked off. He later succumbed to his injuries.
A month earlier, the remains of the dismembered body of a 20-year-old woman with albinism were found in a shallow grave in her village of Phelandaba in South Africa. Most of her body parts as well as her skin were missing. The expert welcomed the prompt reaction of the South African authorities that led to a 20-year conviction for two of the perpetrators involved.
Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.
According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the position of Independent Expert on Albinism was created “as a way to focus attention and provide much needed information and discussion on the issue.”
Meanwhile, the first-ever day for International Albinism Awareness was marked last June. It was described by UN officials as an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of people with albinism and join the struggle against the difficulties they face.