Jaevion Nelson | Let’s have honest conversations on human rights
There is a conversation we need to have about human rights – our collective understanding and appreciation of the value of rights. Too many of us believe human rights are a shackle and those who advocate in this regard are seen as enemies, though...
There is a conversation we need to have about human rights – our collective understanding and appreciation of the value of rights. Too many of us believe human rights are a shackle and those who advocate in this regard are seen as enemies, though the protection and promotion of human rights benefit all of us.
It is quite evident that a lot of work is needed urgently, too.
Uncannily, as a people that believe in equality and justice, we have such strong opposition to the protection and promotion of human rights, especially in certain contexts. The ongoing debates about crime and violence, for example, and the interventions to reduce the high levels of murder, especially, is evidence of the contentiousness of the discussions and the seeming dearth of appreciation for human rights across the length and breadth of this country. This seeming opposition is also common when it comes to discussions about respecting the rights and dignity of children.
It is customary for people to say that because of the work/advocacy of some, criminals have more rights than victims of crimes, or that children have been given the right to break rules and disrespect elders. I have been engaged in countless discussions where people say human-rights defenders are a problem. While they tend to appreciate the important work human-rights defenders do, they are of the view that rights advocates embolden the criminal elements in our society and constrain the police from doing their work. Consequently, some Jamaicans believe human-rights advocates ought to take responsibility as well for the high levels of crime and violence in the society. Even politicians, from both major political parties and across administrations, have engaged in a broadside against human-rights advocates and organisations on countless occasions. INDECOM, for example, has been the subject of much criticism in the past for interfering with the work of the police.
The tendency is to blame politicians, but I think there are other actors that have helped to engender this seeming disaffection. Note, I am not trying to shift responsibility. I believe the Government is the duty bearer; they are obligated to protect and promote human rights. They’re expected to put in place laws that protect rights, and ought to promote respect for human rights. Notwithstanding, the media and human-rights defenders have also played a role in creating an environment where people believe human rights are a shackle. The media, quite often, feed the narrative, pitting people against human-rights defenders, and some practitioners have gone as far as blaming human- rights defenders for the predicament we’re in. The bleeding-heart liberals, they’ve said. Human-rights defenders, on the other hand, have seemingly not done much to educate people about their work and the value of rights.
Age UK, a charity that works with older people, reminds us: “Human rights are basic rights that belong to all of us simply because we are human. They embody key values in our society such as fairness, dignity, equality and respect. They are an important means of protection for us all, especially those who may face abuse, neglect and isolation.”
I believe this is generally understood by the vast majority, if not all of us, in Jamaica. Those key values are built into the ethos/fabric of the society. Listen to conversations in bars, salons, nail parlours, taxis, buses, markets, churches, the bus stop or wherever, and you will see that we are constantly talking about respect, dignity, equality, and fairness, as well as justice and accountability.
The truth is, all of us are frustrated with the state of affairs in the country. The status quo is unbearable and causes too much anxiety. We certainly cannot become the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business with such high levels of trauma and anxiety. We want a change. We want our leaders to take action to protect all of us from harm.
Sadly, we seem stuck in this cycle of admonishing the value of human rights whenever things seem to be out of control. It’s important to make it clear here that while I can’t speak for all human-rights advocates, I do believe that those I have engaged and worked with over the years want the same thing as those who aren’t working in this area. Human-rights defenders believe in justice, too. They want something to be done about crime and violence, and for perpetrators to be dealt with appropriately, but within the confines of the law.
Going forward, we have to work collectively to engender a culture of better understanding of the value of, and respect for, human rights. They are not the enemy. As my friend Glenroy Murray said, we have to develop an understanding that human rights doesn’t just drive negative restraints but positive action as well, which is at the heart of sustainable development. The media must therefore take care to ensure it doesn’t pit people against human rights. Advocates need to do more to educate people about rights. Importantly, politicians have to do more. They ought to ensure there is more human-rights education across the country, and take steps to address violation of rights by state actors and citizens.