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Pussyfooting with rights and skirting our obligations

Published:Thursday | August 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Jaevion Nelson

We have a tendency to flirt with the notion of rights and discuss it with scepticism as if its realisation will somehow be catastrophic to our humanity and existence. Consequently, we routinely abdicate our obligations to promote respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons because "we've become too smug acting as if matters of human rights are first- world concerns that have little place in Jamaica" (Kei Miller, 2014).

Would you believe if I told you "Jamaica has played an outstanding role in the United Nations' system, helping to focus international attention on such significant matters as human rights [...] and women's issues?" See Ambassador H.S. Walker, 1995 http://www.un.int/jamaica/content/permanent-mission-jamaica-united-nation.

Yes, we are not just famous for crime, reggae and dancehall, athletics, weed and sex tourism. Jamaica boasts being at the forefront of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. We were the 'first country to declare a trade embargo against South Africa' (in 1957 when we were still a British colony). In fact, at the 1963 General Assembly, shortly after becoming a member of the United Nations, Senator Hugh Shearer, who represented Sir Alexander Bustamante, proposed that 1968 be designated as the International Year for Human Rights to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sadly, we are no longer a country that is respected globally for our work in this regard. Instead, we have become the subject of much criticism for myriad issues, including, but not limited to, extrajudicial and summary killings, homophobia, prison conditions, treatment of persons living with HIV and disabilities, and detention of children in adult facilities.

no appetite for human rights

The dissonance is palpable. We talk about justice every so often but do so little 'to stand up for justice' and ensure there is 'true respect for all' - unless, of course, we think they are important enough based on their colour, status, class and creed. The acting public defender, Matondo Mukulu, is correct when he said "The country doesn't have an appetite for human rights". And in my view, this is reason why groups like the Lawyers Christian Fellowship have been so successful in perverting the course of justice with their propaganda and fear-mongering for issues not just related to a certain orifice.

Mario Deane's death is a reminder of the tremendous amount of work that we need to do to protect and promote the inalienable rights of every person, regardless of colour, class, or creed. There is, however, no point pussyfooting around why he is no longer alive. Yes, had he not been arrested he perhaps would have been alive today. However, as Dr Dayton Campbell has said, "It does not matter what he was arrested for. The real matter is the treatment that he got while he was in custody [and ...] incarcerated." That's not to say the illegality of marijuana use should not be addressed at all.

Deane's death is about police brutality and treatment of persons in their custody as it is about an arrest for marijuana. But we cannot continue as a people to pretend those in police custody, whether they have committed an offence - no matter how grave - have no rights. Notwithstanding, we should refrain from hijacking this for politicking purposes to change the law or be more favoured among voters. There have been too many Mario Deanes and it's time they get justice).

If we really do intend to advance as a country that is more prosperous, safe, and cohesive and just, where every citizen is seen as valuable and is respected, then we have to appreciate human rights for all. It is ridiculous to continue with our human- rights schizophrenia where today we welcome it because it befits us for whatever reason, and tomorrow we treat it as we would a leper.

We cannot continue to deny our obligation. Let's show our support for Mario Deane. Let's protest in his honour because "for too long we, the people, the majority in this country, have been pushed back. We must rise up and step forward" and condemn what has happened and hold the Government accountable to its responsibilities as the duty-bearer of our rights.

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