A strictly security-focused approach to crime prevention is costly, ineffective and paves the way for human rights violations

Just a couple of days ago, Prime Minister Andrew Holness said, frowning heavily as he spoke at the opening of a new police station in his own constituency of Olympic Gardens, Kingston:

There is no doubt that our use of States of Public Emergency has worked to reduce murders and shootings where ever they have been deployed. Of greater importance is that the public views the States of Emergency (SOEs) as effective in improving their safety and security.

We have to use exceptional powers to address this epidemic that we have of crime and violence.

There must never be a time when criminals feel that they are above the law. If advised, I am prepared to call a State of Public Emergency in Central Kingston to respond to those criminals who are putting the lives of innocent citizens at risk.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness touting the positive impact of “exceptional powers” in tackling crime and violence. (Twitter)

Coincidentally, this opinion piece from Alberto Brunori the Regional Representative for Central America and the English-speaking Caribbean of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) asserts that this approach “has proved to be ineffective preventing crime,” increases the risk of human rights violations, costs a lot of money and “increases mistrust between communities and government institutions” – including security forces. This is plain obvious in Jamaica! We keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Residents of Seaward Drive in Kingston protested the alleged shooting death at the hands of the police of 35-year-old Takeshia McLeod today.

The Americas is the most violent region in the world, and Jamaica has the highest murder rate in the region, currently, according to Insight Crime. The murder rate has not abated, yet we still believe “exceptional powers” will work.

Why Caribbean governments should make the shift to a human rights-based approach to crime prevention now

People in the Caribbean face some of the highest levels of violence in the world. Of the 22 Latin American and Caribbean countries surveyed in 2020 by the independent think-tank Insight Crime, three Caribbean countries ranked in the top-six with most violence. Jamaica tops the list with the highest numbers of murders (46.5) per 100,000 inhabitants, with Trinidad & Tobago (28.2) and Belize (24.3) ranking respectively as the fourth and sixth.

The Caribbean region is in fact particularly exposed to the presence of organized crime groups, which contributes in part to high violence levels. While Caribbean countries are not the only ones facing this threat, the characteristics of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) pose specific challenges in implementing effective responses. High crime rates impact the lives of everyone. However, women, ethnic minorities, migrants, young men, and people living in poverty are amongst those most at risk of falling victims to human rights violations stemming from insecurity.

Unfortunately, a strictly security-focused approach to the problem continues to be the norm. This includes at times an emphasis on so-called “Anti-Gang legislation,” the extended use of state of emergencies or harsher punishments, including the death penalty, which remains on the books in several countries. As regularly pointed out by UN Human Rights treaty bodies, these measures increase the risk of human rights violations, such as extra-judicial or arbitrary killings, unnecessary or excessive use of force by security forces or unlawful or arbitrary arrests and detention.

A security-focused approach has proved to be ineffective in preventing crime, costly for governments and increases mistrust between communities and government institutions, including in security forces. Instead of combating the symptoms, a human rights-based shift is urgently needed to tackle the underlying root causes.

In line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) it is essential to prioritize resources to social protection, health and education systems and employment to curb discrimination, social exclusion, and inequality, which all remain key drivers for crime and social conflicts.

Reforms towards strengthening an independent, impartial and efficient judiciary improve access to justice for all and are fundamental to counter impunity and reoccurrence. This includes strengthening capacities of the judiciary and ensuring effective investigations, prosecution and victim-centred punishment of perpetrators in compliance with judicial guarantees of defendants.

Supporting access to justice for victims is key, such as by countering discrimination, promoting legal aid programmes and awareness raising campaigns. As Caribbean countries continue to present some of the highest levels of sexual and gender-based violence in the Americas, there is a particular need to step up efforts to promote access to justice for victims, especially women and girls, strengthen protection mechanisms, protocols and capacities within the police and judiciary to ensure a gender-sensitive approach.

Investment in human rights compliant policy-, training- and accountability frameworks of security forces. Security forces play an important role in countering crime, but they require detailed internal guidance that is compliant with international human rights standards. One good example in the region is the Caribbean Human Rights and Use of Force Model Policy, which if adopted by governments and security forces would significantly strengthen internal guidelines in relation to use of force and human rights. International experience shows that governments must support security forces with sufficient resources to ensure training and internal oversight, but also avoid political interference in day-to-day-activities. Security forces need to be held accountable for any unlawful or arbitrary actions. This would translate into operational independence, establishing trust with communities and, most importantly, countering crime. Finally, it is important to strengthen rights of members of security force who often put their lives on the line to protect rights of others.

Strengthening rehabilitation and community reintegration of offenders. Harsher prison sentences, overcrowding and dire prison conditions do not deter crime. On the contrary, such measures contribute to re-occurrence and therewith feed into the cycle of violence. Humane custodial measures accompanied by the better use of alternatives of imprisonment and a focus on rehabilitation will reduce crime. As part of community-based interventions religious leaders and the private sector can be important actors of change in preventing stigmatization and supporting reintegration, especially of juvenile offenders. 

Ensuring that human rights are protected today contributes to the prevention of violations and possible violence tomorrow. Making the shift to a human rights-based approach to crime prevention doesn’t require reinvention of the wheel. As the leading UN entity on human rights, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been supporting countries across the world, including in the Caribbean, to tackle many of these issues. This includes building judiciary capacity in incorporating international human rights standards into domestic legal frameworks, reforming and implementing new legislation relating to domestic and sexual violence and human rights training of civil servants, law enforcement and other security forces. While challenges persist, many countries in the region have shown commitment to make the shift. OHCHR stands ready to support governments and all partners involved in this endeavour.

Author: Alberto Brunori is the Regional Representative for Central America and the English-speaking Caribbean of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Contact him at pregionaloffice@ohchr.org or on twitter at @Albrunori or @OACNUDH.

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