Dakar - Liberia must tackle a widespread culture of impunity for perpetrators of ritual killings and trials of ordeal and put its human rights obligations before such traditional practices, the United Nations rights chief said on Friday.
Authorities are reluctant to investigate or prosecute such cases, fearful of a backlash from practitioners and politicians, while some state officials are even part of the secret societies that perform the practices, said a U.N. report.
Women, children, the elderly and the disabled are the main victims of harmful cultural practices, including female genital mutilation (FGM) and initiation into secret societies, it said.
"Criminal offences perpetrated through harmful traditional practices often go unpunished due to their perceived cultural dimensions," said the joint report from the U.N. Mission in Liberia and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"This has generated a widespread culture of impunity among traditional actors," it said.
Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last month vowed to crack down on those responsible for a rise in ritual killings in the West African nation.
Nine cases of suspected ritualistic killing have been reported to the United Nations since 2012, but local media say there have been at least 10 related murders since this summer.
They occur in some African nations due to a belief that body parts can work magic to obtain success or political power.
It is not yet clear why ritual killings are rising, but the report warned of an increase ahead of national elections in 2017, and some residents have speculated that presidential hopefuls are using black magic to boost their chances.
The report also documented the prevalence of FGM, widely performed by the women's secret society Sande, and abductions, torture and gang-rapes carried out by the male society Poro.
Many women and children in Liberia are accused of witchcraft, and face "exorcism" rituals, trials by ordeal, expulsion or even death, according to the report.
The trials involve the accused being subjected to pain, such as poison or burning, to determine their innocence or guilt.
"Liberia's human rights obligations must take precedence over any local practices considered to be 'cultural' or 'traditional' where such practices are incompatible with human rights," said U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)