Human rights in Jamaica and beyond – past and present

It’s International Human Rights Day, and it’s not just a hashtag.

A lot has been going through my mind today. These are stormy times, with the wind blowing first one way and then the other. A sudden rogue wave appears and nearly knocks you off your feet. 2021 has been strangely – and perhaps surprisingly – complex; it’s as if one needed eyes in the back of one’s head, to make sure nothing was creeping up on you. Even so, we got caught out many times. It has been a long, hard year. And we still have three weeks to go.

I am thinking about the state of the world, and it’s as if human rights have been shoved aside to make way for greed, ego, anger, power, hunger. Yes, hunger and desperation.

One word that comes to mind is inequality. Orwell was particularly brutal on this topic:

“It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realise that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”

George Orwell, 1984

Or as Frederick Douglass put it, more succinctly: “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”

Wealth equals power, anyway. Or sheer brute force, whichever comes first. In many parts of the world in 2021, the latter prevailed. In Myanmar, the jackboots of a vicious military junta pressed harder on the necks of men, women and even children. In China, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are being “re-educated” in concentration camps (with the help of electric shock and other tried and tested methods of torture. There are even reports that their women are being force-sterilized).

Many human rights have been abused in the name of A) “fighting terrorism/crime” and B) COVID-19 restrictions. There’s always some useful justification at hand.

Here are a few more thoughts I had:

There is the continued abuse of women’s rights at all levels and every level. Gender-based violence remains a seemingly intractable issue. During the 16 Days of Activism, which ended today, a teacher was shot dead at the gates of her school in Treasure Beach (a generally peaceful community) as she came into work. She was reportedly in an abusive relationship. Was there a connection?

Berta Cáceres | Mark Kerrison/Alamy Stock Photo

Environmental and land rights are being eroded – here, there, everywhere. You don’t have to look very far. “The right to a healthy environment” sounds nice but has become a meaningless phrase. Think Gibraltar, St. Ann, and Green Island, Hanover. Think of the defenders: Berta Cáceres in Honduras, Homero Gómez González in Mexico, Hernán Bedoya in Colombia, and many more in the Americas alone, who have sacrificed their lives for defending their land and the environment – against greed.

There is Black Lives Matter (and the ridiculous countering “all lives matter”).

Protesters demonstrate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. (Associated Press)

Freedom of expression is something we may take quite lightly in Jamaica – but elsewhere it’s a serious matter. Even among our regional neighbors – Cuba, Nicaragua, to name just a couple – it can put you behind bars. I watched an interview with a Uyghur who was imprisoned and tortured for trying to set up a WhatsApp group (!) and then sent to one of the aforementioned “re-education” camps. In Hong Kong this week, three democracy campaigners were convicted of unlawful assembly after encouraging citizens to join the annual vigil commemorating the Tienanmen Square massacre. Perhaps there won’t be a vigil next year. Now you can’t even remember a historic abuse of human rights without your own rights being abused.

There are the growing legions of the homeless – not only in developing countries like ours, but worldwide. An estimated 150 million are homeless, globally – although numbers are probably much higher. The United Nations calls it “a violation of human dignity.”

Homeless people wander through our uptown neighborhood. They sit on the kerb. They stand hopefully at our gates until someone tells them to go away. They sleep under our pretty ornamental trees, sometimes. They are lost, they are forgotten. We don’t even look at them, let alone make eye contact. We in our comfort zones do not always understand that a few strokes of circumstance and loss could put us in the very same position, sleeping in a doorway. This year got off to a terrifying start, when four homeless men were chopped to death, and several others injured, back in January. We have probably forgotten about that, and moved on. Was the perpetrator brought to justice?

There is more – much more – to be said, but I will end with today’s statement from the human rights lobby group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), which includes an overview of its history and work since 1999. They have also produced a video (see it here):

A strident defender of human rights, Jamaicans for Justice has been working tenaciously for over two decades to empower populations who have traditionally been denied their rights, including the marginalized poor, women, and children in state care and lockups.

Born from the gas riots and incidents of police abuse in the 90s, founded in 1999 out of a volatile period of protest surrounding the increased price of gasoline, JFJ soon grew into an organization committed more generally to the protection of rights and freedoms.

“Fifty-two men from Grant’s Pen were illegally detained and finger-printed around mid-morning on July 28, 1999. JFJ was approached by residents to provide legal representation for the men. As the details of the round-up revealed, it became clear that some of the actions of the joint police/military patrol were illegal,” said JFJ Executive Director Mickel Jackson, as she sought to share background on some of the organization’s first cases.

At the end of a three-year legal process, thirteen of the men from Grant’s Pen, who had brought suits against the government, were successful in winning from the State a declaration of its mea culpa – an admission that its agents had infringed their civil rights.

Another critical case for the organization was the case of Michael Gayle, a mentally ill man who was brutally beaten and killed by the security forces for breaching a curfew.

“Despite JFJ being in its embryonic stages, the organization took the Gayle case to the attention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which resulted in the government eventually allowing an independent observer to be present at postmortems and a Special Coroner’s Court to be established to review instances of police killings,” said Jackson.

The IACHR ruling in the Gayle case and years of advocacy by JFJ were critical in the establishment of the Independent Commission of Investigation (INDECOM) in 2010. While critics of JFJ tend to focus most on its work regarding extrajudicial killings, Jackson explained that the organization also provides free legal services to the families of victims, to any Jamaican who experiences rights violations by the State, as well as to survivors of gender-based violence.

Additionally, JFJ actively campaigns to influence change at the level of policy and legislation. “We have helped with major reforms over the years, including The Corruption Prevention Act 2000, The Charter of Rights Bill, The Terrorism Prevention Act and the Access to Information Act,” Jackson said.

The organization’s mission has even expanded to providing human rights training, both to the police and the citizens. Another critical component of JFJ’s work is the protection of the rights of children.

“Since 2003, JFJ has been actively monitoring the situation in children’s homes, places of safety, and lock-ups, including advocating for the decriminalization of children deemed uncontrollable,” Jackson added.

As JFJ continues to seed citizens with the resources necessary to protect their rights, we recognize the critical importance of the State. JFJ is again calling on the State to reaffirm its commitment to protect hte fundamental rights and freedoms by implementing strong anti-discrimination laws and establishing the long overdue National Human Rights Institution.

Jamaicans for Justice, December 10, 2021
Mickel Jackson, Executive Director, Jamaicans for Justice

I am perhaps in a dark mood, having just finished reading “The Testaments” (a continuation of the dystopian “The Handmaid’s Tale”). One of the characters observes:

“Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.”

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

The answer, then, is to make noise, and to keep moving. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If you can’t walk…” You know the rest. Keep going.

P.S. I have ordered Ai Weiwei’s new book and can’t wait to receive it. It is called “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir.” I am mostly a Kindle person these days, but I am looking forward to having this particular hardcover in my hands and turning the pages. I am going to give him the last word:

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