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Root It Out ... Public Defender Renews Calls for Legislation to Tackle Discrimination

Published:Tuesday | October 20, 2015 | 10:00 AM
Arlene Harrison-Henry

With her investigation into the removal of St Hilda's High School head girl now complete, the public defender is renewing calls for the Parliament to pass legislation banning discrimination in all forms. Arlene Harrison-Henry says they are all rooted in bigotry.

Harrison-Henry told The Gleaner that she has been advocating for non-discriminatory legislation since her time as president of the Jamaican Bar Association.

"For some time now, the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights and certainly from the time I was president of the Jamaican Bar, we called for a piece of legislation that says that all forms of discrimination is prohibited," she said.

Harrison-Henry was responding to a Sunday Gleaner column by former Deputy Public Defender, Matondo Mukulu who argued that the situation surrounding the removal of St Hilda's High School head girl points to the need for full ventilation of what he calls direct and indirect discrimination, in the form of a new equality/discrimination act. This he said would supplement the general discriminatory provisions outlined in the Constitution.

The public defender went on to explain that when she took up office earlier this year, the office was completing a report on discrimination against rastafarians and one of the recommendations which she added after reviewing the report was that of a non-discriminatory piece of legislation.

"The call has been in Jamaica for some time now, so we are repeating the call in light of that study that we have now concluded on the rastafari community, coming out of the Coral Gardens incident which took place in 1963," she added.

According to Harrison-Henry, a non-discriminatory law will serve to limit instances of discrimination.

"As a country, we have practiced discrimination over the years against varying groups ... . In respect of colour, class ... communities with HIV/AIDS, discrimination if you are a part of the homosexual community, so the point I make is (that) we have to root it out, and the legislation will assist tremendously. Whether grounded in religion (or not), any form of discrimination is rooted in bigotry and that is why our recommendation in respect of the St Hilda's head girl is for her to be reinstated."

While she noted that a broad non-discriminatory legislation would not have been needed to support the case of discrimination against the St Hilda's head girl, given that the Constitution already prohibits religious discrimination, she argued that such a legislation would still be relevant and beneficial to the country.

Human rights activist, Horace Levy argued that the arguments laid out by Mukulu were convincing given that the Constitution does not specify when there is a case of indirect discrimination.

"The truth is that inasmuch as the St Hilda's case, according to his own arguments, it's an instance of direct discrimination and it's not for the sake of direct discrimination that he is calling for this act so much as to help in regards to indirect discrimination, then his argument is sufficient," he said.

For Levy, however, any further characterisation of acts of discrimination must be inclusive and must be broad enough to deal with all cases of discrimination.