Sun | Dec 16, 2018

Jamaica's Trail blazer at the UN

Published:Monday | March 6, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Shorna-Kay Richards, Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations presenting at a conference.
Shorna-Kay Richards, director bilateral relations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade.


Besides her passion for the Jamaican Foreign Service, director for bilateral relations in the foreign ministry and former deputy permanent representative of Jamaica to the United Nations, Shorna-Kay Richards, is also an avid art lover and interior decorator.

Her style icon is Audrey Hepburn, evidenced by the simple, elegant, and classic look that she carries so easily. For her, less is more - except when she addresses issues in her field of specialisation - disarmament, non-proliferation, and arms control.

Richards is among a few women in developing countries excelling in the male-dominated specialisation.

Richards told Flair that her efforts include bringing a gender perspective to this field, and in so doing, increase women's participation, as well as amplifying their voices.

This interview, she said, was quite timely as this month the United Nations will convene a historic conference to negotiate a treaty to prohibit/ban nuclear weapons. "Jamaica has been playing an active role in these efforts," revealed the former Bishop Gibson High graduate, who later read for her first degree in international relations and French at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus.

She admits that when she joined the foreign service almost 23 years ago, she never imagined that one day she would be given the opportunity to work in the area of disarmament, non-proliferation, and arms control, and make a contribution to international peace, security, and development.

"I am humbled by this experience. I am convinced that women, including myself, must be given a chance to use their voice and their advocacy for positive change."

Her four-year assignment in Jamaica's mission to the United Nations has afforded her a unique opportunity to use her voice - bringing a human security/ humanitarian perspective to the discourse and contributing to making the participation of civil society more relevant in their work.

Women in the field

As a female diplomat from a small developing island state working in her field, Richards said she has never experienced any discrimination or limitations because of her gender.

"To the contrary, throughout my career, I have worked with and been mentored by a cadre of world-class professional female diplomats who have taught me some key lessons as it relates to technical competence, work ethics, and professionalism."

One such mentor was Ambassador Pat Durrant, who was instrumental during Jamaica's presidency of the UN Security Council in July 2000 in the adoption of the presidential statement recognising the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and peace-building, as well as the importance of their increased participation in all aspects of conflict prevention.

The other women who have impacted her life include her grandmother, Whilda Reynolds, mother Angella Henry, and a group of female ambassadors in the foreign service, from whom she has received inspiration over the years.

Accepting that there remains a dominant power structure that is supported by accepted norms about gender roles in Jamaica - in which men and women are expected to carry out specified functions, work in particular sectors, and occupy prescribed position, Richards noted that there was fairly equal participation in the labour market.

For her, women have proven instrumental in "building bridges rather than walls". She noted that it is important that women have an active role in peace-building, peacemaking and disarmament. "In essence, we must be at the table and in the field," she said, adding that women's ability to influence the direction of change to create a more just social, economic, and political order should not be overlooked. Gender equality, therefore, is an essential precursor to the democratic governance and inclusive and sustainable human development.

Coming full circle

In many ways, she said, she feels she has come full circle. "In 2005, I had the opportunity to apply for the UN Fellowship on Disarmament. Preference was given to women, as the UN started to mainstream gender in its work," she reminisced.

Her application was successful, and at the start of the course, the coordinator told her that they were hesitant in granting her the fellowship, as Jamaica had a poor track record of placing its former fellows at the UN and never in the First Committee.

"However, on reading the essay I had written in support of my application on conventional arms - small arms control - I highlighted that collective action to the process of eliminating small arms and light weapons was a major foreign policy objective for Jamaica. That consideration of this topic in the disarmament fellowship programme would serve to enhance my ability to provide effective support to these discussion, they decided to grant me the fellowship."

She promised the coordinator that one day she would be delegate to the First Committee, and in 2012 - eight years later - she fulfilled that promise.

"Not only did I cover these issues when I came to New York, but even more so, Jamaica chaired the committee for the very first time. This was the second time a CARICOM country had done so, and 34 years after the first."

Through the UN Disarmament Fellowship, she had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to hear the appeal of the Hibakusha (A-bomb survivors).

"I took their appeal with me, and I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to not only represent my country on this issue, but also to contribute to global efforts to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, in response to their appeal."