Beyond Democratic Tolerance: Witch Killings in Timor-Leste

Rebecca Strating, Beth Edmondson


Newly democratising states experience challenges in reconciling “traditional” or “customary” dispute resolution practices with newly established state-based legal systems based on the rule of law. For Timor-Leste, these tensions are pronounced in continuing debates concerning the killing or injuring of women accused of witchcraft. Defences of extrajudicial punishments tend to conflate democracy with local support and fail to deal with the key institutions of democratic systems, including the rule of law, political equality, and civil rights. In Timor-Leste’s case, where equality and social rights were incorporated into the Constitution as fundamental governmental obligations, localised extrajudicial punishments threaten internal and external state legitimacy and highlight the difficulties of ensuring the primacy of state-based institutions. Extrajudicial punishments challenge Timor-Leste’s capacity to consolidate new liberal democratic political institutions.

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