Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Jaevion Nelson | Government’s lip service to human rights commitment

Published:Thursday | October 20, 2016 | 10:00 AM

The United Nations, in its bold advocacy which has helped to shape the current international human-rights framework, mooted the idea of independent national institutions protecting and promoting human rights. Jamaica has not yet done so. It's interesting that a nation that prides itself on fighting for, and promoting justice for all peoples - at least, at one point in our history - has no timeline to indicate when the Government intends to fully implement this commitment. It is appalling that such an institution has not yet been established when you consider the rampant breach of rights by the State, private entities, and individuals.

Earlier this week, during the UN Human Rights Committee's fourth Periodic Review of Jamaica's compliance to its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which we ratified in 1975, Ambassador McCook again expressed the Government's long-standing commitment to establish a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), though he could not provide a date for when this will actually happen. National Human Rights Institutions, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "are state bodies with a constitutional and/or legislative mandate to protect and promote human rights. They are part of the state apparatus and are funded by the state".

One then wonders why the violations of the rights of the poorest, and most vulnerable and marginalised continue unabated. Is not because the Government has, in large part, failed to honour its obligations? Is it that the Government does not consider these matters as important, as crucial to the country's development despite its expressed commitments to protecting and promoting human rights, and fulfilling its obligations in this regard in the National Development Plan - Vision 2030? It's rather odd how we allow this government - administration after administration, to abdicate its responsibilities to us the people who voted them in office.

 

PRIORITY OR NOT?

 

Margo Waterfall from Suriname and a member of the Human Rights Committee seemed rather distressed on Tuesday as she reminded the Government that from as early as 1968, there were discussions in our Parliament about establishing a national human-rights institution, which was rejected, and to which no clear timeline has been provided on its possible establishment. The situation begs the question of what the Government truly means when it identify an action as a priority.

The Government, in its 2015 National Report to the HRC, confirmed that it was "actively pursuing the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution" and further expressed in October 2016 in its reply to the List of Issues published by the Human Rights Committee that "approval has been given by the Cabinet for the establishment of the institute, in principle. The Ministry of Justice is now finalising an additional Cabinet submission related to the legislative changes required for formal establishment of the NHRI. These legislative changes seek to expand the role of the current Office of the Public Defender". If this has been done, why then is the Government unable to provide an actual date/timeline?

The civil society submission, which was written by Jamaicans For Justice, J-FLAG, Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network, Stand Up for Jamaica and Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, sums up the dilemma that the Government is obviously unable to see quite eloquently: "The failure of the [Government] to do so leaves important gaps in Jamaica's rights protection infrastructure that undermine the fulfilment of its obligations under Article 2 of the Covenant [...]. The lack of a robust national mechanism for the protection and promotion of the rights enshrined in the Covenant has contributed the sustained human rights challenges experienced in Jamaica. The substitute institution, the Public Defender, which the government plans to expand to form the NHRI does not accord with the minimum standards outlined in the Paris Principles in important respects."

It is crucial that Jamaica establishes an independent national human-rights institution, and provide it with adequate financial and human resources, in line with the principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (Paris Principles). It is high time we get serious about rights.

• Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.