Jamaica: Inter-American Commission Reports Human Rights Concerns, Recommends Policy Changes

IACHR in loco visit to Jamaica in 2008
credit: OAS

Last week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a report on the human rights situation in Jamaica. IACHR, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Jamaica (2012).  The report is the first of the IACHR’s country reports to focus on Jamaica, and is a result of monitoring activities carried out in recent years, including a country visit in 2008, several public hearings, and sharing of information by both the Jamaican government and civil society organizations in the country. [IACHR press release]  In it, the IACHR expresses concern over human rights conditions in Jamaica, particularly for marginalized groups such as incarcerated persons, women, children, persons with disabilities, sexual minorities, and persons with HIV/AIDS.  The IACHR also highlights rampant violent crime (including extrajudicial killings by security forces) and weaknesses in Jamaica’s administration of justice, such as police impunity, which exacerbate the problems faced by these groups.

Some Progress, but More Improvements Are Necessary
Jamaica has made some structural improvements to better protect the population’s human rights, such as introducing a series of anti-crime bills to the legislature in 2010. [Jamaica-Gleaner]  Additionally, in 2011, the country adopted a constitutional amendment, called the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, which provides for increased constitutional protections that include the prohibition of certain forms of discrimination and the right to obtain a passport. [Jamaica Observer]  Nonetheless, significant human rights concerns persist.

A major area of concern for the IACHR is the “alarming” level of violence experienced in Jamaica. [IACHR press release]  In 2009, Jamaica saw a total of 1,680 homicides, followed by 1,428 in the year 2010. While the homicide rate has since decreased, it remains extremely high.  The IACHR attributes this violence to poverty, the presence of organized crime, and inadequate responses by the Jamaican state.  Recommendations include implementing a broad public policy focusing on citizen security that also addresses selection and training for all legal and law enforcement personnel, adopting legislation to care for victims of crime (particularly within vulnerable populations), and modernizing security and police forces with training conforming to international human rights standards.  IACHR, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Jamaica.

Abuses by security forces constitute another area of significant concern; more than 20 percent of homicides in 2010 were police killings.  Many of the 2010 police killings occurred during the state of emergency called during May of of that year, an event which the Jamaican government has not  properly addressed according to the Commission. Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Jamaica.  While citizen outrage over these problems spurred creation of the Independent Commission of Investigations, gross injustices continue to occur. [Jamaica-Gleaner]  For example, police officers have been observed wearing masks, covering up badges, or otherwise concealing their identities as police.  The IACHR recommends enforcing identification rules, combating impunity for police officers who kill through independent and effective investigations, and developing clear rules and regulations that law enforcement personnel must follow. Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Jamaica.

The media point out, and some government officials also concede, that discrimination, particularly against sexual minorities, is a significant problem in Jamaica. [Atlanta Black Star, Jamaica-Gleaner]  In response to the IACHR’s report, Jamaica’s Minister of Justice, Mark Golding, explained that while Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms affords individuals protection, the court system limits the way minority groups can use the document to protect their constitutional rights, and he urged the legislature to act in order to create more targeted laws to protect such minorities. [RJR News]  Some human rights practitioners in Jamaica have expressed the belief that Golding’s comment, while not specifically mentioning gay or lesbian individuals, was a clear reference to the lack of access among sexual minorities to the justice system.

International Monitoring and Protection of Human Rights in Jamaica
The IACHR has heard individual complaints against Jamaica on a number of issues in the past.  Its decision regarding the death of Michael Gayle at the hands of security forces condemned policy impunity and inadequate judicial protection for victims of such abuses and their family members. IACHR, Report No. 92/05, Case 12.418, Michael Gayle (Jamaica), 24 October 2005.

In 2006, the IACHR determined that Jamaica denied a criminal defendant a fair trial and appeal where he did not have access to counsel and the court allowed a coerced confession into evidence. IACHR, Report No. 61/06, Case 12.447, Derrick Tracey (Jamaica), 20 July 2006.  The Commission’s recommendations included a re-trial which would meet the American Convention’s due process requirements and adoption of legislation preventing such injustices from recurring. Id.

In contrast, the Commission determined that a newspaper editor’s libel conviction for printing a news story on official corruption did not have a chilling effect on freedom of expression because the damages award was determined in accordance with existing standards. IACHR, Report No. 23/08, Case 12.468, Dudley Stokes (Jamaica), 14 March 2008.

In recent years, the Commission has held public thematic hearings concerning Jamaica on a range of topics, including the issues raised in these cases.

In 2011, the IACHR granted requests for precautionary measures by individuals at risk due to their sexual orientation or advocacy promoting LGBTI rights. IACHR, Precautionary Measures, 2011 (PM 153/11 – X and Z, Jamaica; PM 80/11 – Maurice Tomlinson, Jamaica). 

In December 2008, the IACHR conducted an on-site visit to Jamaica, where Commission representatives met with government officials and civil society groups and organized activities to spread awareness of the Inter-American human rights framework. [IACHR]  Shortly after the visit, the Commission published its preliminary observations regarding the human rights situation in Jamaica.

United Nations special rapporteurs have also visited Jamaica.  In 2003, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions conducted a mission to investigate extrajudicial killings by Jamaican security and police forces and the use of capital punishment.  The Special Rapporteur did, in fact, find truth to allegations of excessive use of police force and a lack of independence and transparency in investigations involving police aggression.  Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2004/7/Add.2, 26 September 2003.

More recently, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment visited Jamaica in 2010.  While the Special Rapporteur did not find instances of overt torture in the traditional sense, he did find that persons in conflict with the law were treated inhumanely, and that conditions were even worse for children and persons with mental disabilities.  Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, UN Doc. A/HRC/16/52/Add.3, 11 October 2010.

Other UN oversight of Jamaica’s human rights practices include: concluding observations by UN human rights treaty bodies regarding Jamaica’s periodic reports on its implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); numerous decisions by the UN Human Rights Committee on individual communications concerning Jamaica; and the Universal Periodic Review.