Wed | Jul 8, 2020

Crime facts vs human-rights theories

Published:Sunday | July 4, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Gleaner Writer


"To be poor is a crime, and only money can get you justice!" is a sentiment often voiced by ordinary Jamaicans. You hear many stories, for instance, of sexual abuse by 'big men' or brutalisation by state forces, which never get to court because of a lack of resources or connections. In such helpless situations, our human-rights groups sometimes represent the only hope for legal recourse.


Take Millicent Forbes, whose innocent 13-year-old daughter, Janice Allen, was killed by a policeman in 2000, and whose cause was championed by Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ). Though the case has been so far unsuccessful, she, at least, had the satisfaction of knowing someone was fighting with her. Many other poor Jamaicans must have looked on and seen JFJ as a ray of hope if similar misfortune ever befell them.

Most persons support the principles on which groups like JFJ and Families Against State Terrorism (FAST) were formed, and admire the time and effort their members put into causes that bring no personal benefit. This makes their declining support on the ground quite disturbing.

Don Anderson, the only pollster statistically correct about either the 2002 or 2007 general elections, has not done any surveys on JFJ. But I have conducted numerous 'man-on-the-street' vox pops with taxi drivers and street vendors and salesmen and such, and the vast majority express a negative view of JFJ and other human-rights groups. They are seen as anti-police and pro-criminal, and out of touch with the common man's concerns. As one person said: "The public is losing patience with these human-rights groups. We like what they claim to stand for, but they are unbalanced and seem to be demanding the impossible. The police cannot always be wrong. And it is unreasonable to think that our crime problem can be solved without anyone being inconvenienced."

The current state of emergency (SOE) is unquestionably supported by most Jamaicans. This country's average murder rate over the past five years is 51 per 100,000, the highest in the world. So, naturally, our scared populace supports a crime drive that has made them feel safer.

State of emergency

Yet our human-rights groups condemned the state of emergency without even bothering to ask for the security forces' reasons. As a highly respected police official said:

"The state of emergency gives the power to search premises without a warrant. The security forces often have good intelligence that weapons, etc, are held in an area, although not necessarily in a specific building, which means only a general search of several buildings will allow us to find them. This would not be possible without an SOE.

"It also gives us power to hold suspects on reasonable grounds, which allows us to hold, question, profile and fully identify crimes that they may be responsible for. We have so far identified a number where serious charges will follow. A good number of others being followed up will probably also end in serious charges. Other detainees are regarded as presenting a serious threat to public order if they were released while searches are being conducted.

"The media cannot be allowed at the Emergency Review Tribunal hearings because we might have to discuss sensitive intelligence matters, which would compromise our crime-fighting ability if made public.

"Our security forces have conducted themselves very well so far in this operation, especially given our limited resources, and have in my view, observed international human-rights standards.

"Many persons are raising a lot of objections without asking us why we are doing what we are doing. But we are not taking any measures without well-thought-out reasons. After all, our only aim is to reduce the level of crime and make Jamaicans feel safer."

This comes from a man of impeccable character who knows a damn sight more about Jamaica's security realities than any human-rights group. And he is dealing not with 'what might work' theoretical ideologies, but with 'what is working' facts on the ground. June's murder count was nearly one-third lower than last year's, and the lowest since June 2002. Each of the nearly 15,000 bullets seized so far represents a potential life saved. Who can argue with such results? The security forces are clearly rolling back the tide of crime, and must be allowed to finish the job they have successfully started.

Anti-crime think tank

This official also proposes the creation of a broad-based but not cumbersomely large anti-crime think tank. It might include, say, the security and justice ministers, the opposition security and justice spokesman, the police commissioner, the Jamaica Defence Force chief of staff, local and foreign crime experts like Anthony Harriott, Bernard Headley, Herbert Gayle and Desmond Arias, and groups like JFJ, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, and the Jamaican Bar Association. Philosophical differences and technical details could then be worked out privately in a democratic atmosphere. It is ridiculous to hear persons who should all have the same goal of a safer Jamaica publicly lambasting each other.

Respect for human rights is a critical component of any civilised country. Foreign Policy magazine's 2010 Failed States Index, in which Jamaica does not even figure, lists human rights as one of the 12 critical elements of state failure. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/06/21/the failed states index 2010.

Yet by definition, only issues that gain or lose votes truly matter in democracies, and groups unpopular with the majority tend to be ignored by elected governments. So it cannot be healthy for a nation's human-rights organisations to be viewed mostly with indifference or hostility by the masses. Indeed, a government member remarked last week that human-rights groups are "becoming irrelevant". This strongly suggests that for the good of the country, groups like JFJ and FAST need to take stock of where they stand with the public at large.

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