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Human rights body closes doors to public - To continue giving legal advice via phone

Published:Tuesday | December 29, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The Independent Jamaica Council of Human Rights (IJCHR) has all but closed its doors to the public.

The council, which is the oldest non-governmental human-rights organisation in the Caribbean, no longer has an office that is open to the public but now only accepts calls to give legal advice.

In its heyday, the IJCHR was very active in taking on cases pro bono, which dealt with human-rights and constitutional issues.

One of its most famous cases was a 2005 Privy Council appeal which challenged the constitutionality of a bill which sought to establish the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica's final appellate court.

As the chief advocate against the death penalty in Jamaica, IJCHR was heavily funded by the European Union (EU). The EU, which had launched a global campaign for the abolition of the death penalty, provided funding to organisations which advanced this cause.

Since that time, the death penalty issue has reached as far as it can go with litigation. The likelihood of anyone being hanged in Jamaica has been reduced to zilch, and the two men who remain on death row are proceeding with what are expected to be successful appeals.

Success lead to funding cuts

In what can perhaps be considered an ironic twist of events, this successful advocacy of the council against the death penalty has led to a crippling reduction in its funding particularly from the EU.

"We did other things; we did educational things; we did represent people in other matters - lots of court matters (and) lots of advocacy. We have not been able to get necessary funding for that ... so we don't have an office for people to go to," council member Nancy Anderson explained to The Gleaner.

Although the council still meets on a regular basis, the operational functions once carried out by its administrative office have ceased.

When it was fully operational, the IJCHR formed part of a legal ecosystem which advised citizens on their human rights, provided support to the legal-aid sector and made referrals to other lawyers in civil matters. The office was a place where people could go with complaints and get solid legal advice. However, that no longer obtains. According to Nancy Anderson, the scale-down in operations has left a gap in human-rights advocacy, particularly as it regards legal matters.

Anderson agreed that the lack of funding continues to be a threat to human-rights organisations.

"I have not done any study of it, but I think there is a gap. Some other organisations have taken up giving legal advice but we still get referrals from the individual attorneys from those organisations ..., but I really think there is a gap," she said.