Human Rights Day this year was particularly significant for the world. We have to think “world” on Human Rights Day, and then get out our magnifying glasses and zoom in on a map of Jamaica and the Caribbean. For all of us, it was the 70th Anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. History tells us that, on 10th December 1948, our human race was bruised and deeply wounded by the second of two vicious world wars. These were self-inflicted wounds – and for that reason, it was all the more important to try to protect ourselves from ever doing it to ourselves again. (Please don’t say this was a “Western” concern – World War II in particular impacted almost everywhere on the planet in some way or another).
And now, seventy years later, where are we? The world is in a mess, I thought, indulging in some gloom as I sat in the main hall at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston today. The Great Narcissist is wreaking havoc in his own beleaguered and miserable country and inflicting his own misogyny, mistrust and misdemeanours on the rest of us. There are nasty dictators in almost every corner of the globe – the Phillippines, Venezuela, North Korea, Myanmar – whose minds are never clouded by concepts of human rights. There are scary leaders like Vladimir Putin, with his aura of darkness. Not far from his domain, there are presidents like Viktor Orbán (Hungary) and a fringe, populist government in Italy. Last year, the very new, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the federal parliament for the first time. Neighbouring Austria leaned rightwards for quite a while now. This year, a right-wing anti-immigrant party made significant gains in Sweden, a traditionally generous and enlightened nation. And the Dis-United Kingdom is tearing itself apart. A Labour Party member even seized the mace in Parliament today. Environmental defenders are being murdered. My former human rights hero in Myanmar is disgraced.
Meanwhile, at the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, what is being called the “New Axis of Evil,” (the U.S., Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) has rejected the report of thousands of scientists around the world (including our own Professor Michael Taylor). Darkness stalks the land.
To misquote Shakespeare, I would say, rather rudely: “A pox on all your houses!” (or a “plague” if you prefer). None of you is worth one cent. You do not have the interests of the human race at heart – let alone our poor, ravaged Mother Earth.
But enough of our so-called leaders. At today’s recognition of the 70th anniversary, there were efforts to be upbeat. Headlined “Art for Human Rights,” the gathering of a number of diplomats, human rights activists, students and “odd bods” like me listened to “reasonings” (which were more like ramblings at times), and an unfortunately curtailed panel discussion (I had some questions to ask). I am not sure how many media people were there – they would have been gathered at the Prime Minister’s press briefing on the current scandal at Petrojam. In general, Jamaican media like to follow politicians around – and there were none at this event.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Kamina Johnson Smith – Jamaica’s chief diplomat – who was noted on the programme as delivering the keynote address, was conspicuous by her absence. Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry – whose name was mentioned several times – also did not appear; I noticed her substitute rush in quite late, just in time to deliver her message. I had to miss the video presentation, presentation of prizes for the arts competition, and a tour of the art exhibition. I think too much was crammed into the nevertheless enlightening programme.
The hashtag for today was #standup4humanrights – reminding me of the Marley song, Get Up, Stand Up. Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights and Justice played as we came in. As each speaker resoundingly told us to “stand up,” I hesitated, wondering whether I should literally get up off my behind. But we all stayed sitting down.
So, seventy years later, where is Jamaica? The Minister’s substitute, Ambassador Marcia Gilbert Roberts, told us that “Jamaicans can be justifiably proud of the role that our country played in shaping the international human rights architecture that exists today.” She then harked back to the good old days post-Independence when we signed a bunch of Conventions. Jamaican Government officials always do this when speaking of human rights. Fast forward, as they say, to the present, and the picture is a mixed one. I picked out some sections of Ambassador Gilbert Roberts’ speech (her quotes are highlighted in purple):
- Persons with Disabilities: Yes, “Jamaica was the first country to sign and ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities back in 2007.” However, why has the Disabilities Act, passed in 2014, not yet been implemented? The CEO of Digicel Foundation, Karlene Dawson, among others, has urged the Government to enact it swiftly just recently.
- “We have also provided strong protection from discrimination enshrined in our constitution and that is widely respected across the country.” I can think of numerous examples of discrimination against LGBT Jamaicans, women, people living with HIV/AIDS, Jamaicans living in “undesirable” neighbourhoods, at-risk youth, the elderly, rural residents, the incarcerated and the recently incarcerated – you name it. Where is the “strong protection” for these groups, and many others?
- “Our international recognition as one of the countries that demonstrates the greatest respect for the freedom of information” could be tempered by the fact that it is often incredibly difficult to obtain said information under our Access to Information Act.
- “We also continue to make strides on several other fronts. Key among these is guaranteeing the right to healthcare by ensuring access to health services; ensuring the right to an education through the Government’s compulsory education policy; and addressing the right to an adequate standard of living through several initiatives aimed at improving the housing stock, in fulfilment of the right of access to housing.” I suppose we are creeping on our knees towards these goals. But they remain goals rather than strides.
Then we came onto the sticky part – crime and violence. The Government concedes that this “has severely impacted the right to life,” and that it has brought down the murder rate. Once again, police recruits are undergoing human rights training. Do these new policemen and women simply forget about it, once they get on the road? The lack of respect by many (not all) police officers towards the citizens they “protect and serve” is an almost daily topic on radio talk shows and social media.
The European Union Head of Delegation Ambassador Malgorzata Wasilewska and other diplomats have expressed concern over the clear conflict between keeping crime in check and ensuring human rights are respected. I think Ambassador Wasilewska spoke out nicely when she asserted that “the only sustainable security is based on human rights.”
In other words, don’t think you can clean up all the murders by rounding up hundreds of young men and keeping them in disgusting conditions in police lock-ups – during a State of Emergency or at any other time. That will only build distrust, anger and repercussions out there in society, over time. We are still haunted by the ghosts of Agana Barrett, Ian Forbes and Vassell Brown, who suffocated to death in an overcrowded cell in Constant Spring Police Station, 26 years ago. We are still disturbed by more recent memories of the injustice and horror of Mario Deane’s death. Do Justices of the Peace actually visit these hellholes (unannounced?) and do they find the conditions acceptable? Remember, these are people (sometimes children) who have not been charged with any crime.
Because it’s not just a question of the murder rate, dear Government, important as that is.
Finally, a large part of the discussion centred – and rightly so – around the treatment of women and children. Ambassador Roberts referred to the “entrenched problem of gender inequality and discrimination that requires a coordinated and sustained approach.” There is a “framework for future action” in the National Policy on Gender Equality as well as the ten-year National Strategic Action Plan to Eliminate Gender-based Violence. We need now action. As for the pending legislative review of the Sexual Offences Act, the Offences against the Person Act, and the Domestic Violence Act – not to mention the ever-pending Sexual Harassment Bill, which is still not yet before Parliament – well, one can only conclude that these are not priorities. One new national shelter for battered women and their children is good. However, we need at least one in each parish. It’s apparently a “landmark step.” I find it rather sad that we can congratulate ourselves on any of this.
What of human trafficking, by the way – a human rights concern that the Ministry of Justice (especially the indefatigable Permanent Secretary, Carol Palmer) has campaigned against at length. This is “modern-day slavery.” Surely this is a major issue. And surely this is a “women and children” issue.
I have applauded the Prime Minister’s strong stance against corporal punishment in schools. However, all the pending pieces of legislation that need amending seem to drag their feet in Parliament. The few women in Parliament (a situation that has hardly changed in decades, by the way) need to speak more loudly and insist that they just get on with it.
Going back to international conventions for a moment, Ambassador Gilbert Roberts pointed out that Jamaica has signed seven out of the major nine conventions related to human rights. The two international human rights conventions Jamaica has not signed are the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which came into force in 1987; several CARICOM countries have. Jamaica has also not signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. That’s a more recent one, which came into force eight years ago.
There was no mention by the Government representative of any plans for a National Human Rights Commission, as an oversight body, which the diplomatic community including the United Nations says it would like Jamaica to consider. This seems to have dropped off the agenda. Four or five years ago, there was some talk about it. Now, nothing.
The United Nations Resident Representative in Jamaica Bruno Pouezat seemed to echo my gloomy reflections when he said, referring to the state of human rights in the world today: “Our efforts have failed.” And as far as Jamaica is concerned, the EU Delegation Head’s words also resonated with me: “Much needs to be done in Jamaica.”
It’s not about pretty phrases like “enshrined in our Constitution” and “Jamaica’s commitment to human rights promotion and protection has not waned.” It’s about action. Let’s get on with it and really “make strides.”