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The role of human-rights groups

Published:Tuesday | February 23, 2010 | 12:00 AM


THE TRAGIC death of Special Constable Norman Nunez, the late bodyguard of the mayor of Kingston, Desmond McKenzie, has again given voice to that oft-expressed opinion whenever a member of the police force is murdered: That human-rights groups do not condemn such killings, whereas they are quick to condemn suspected extrajudicial killings by policemen.

As one of the many citizens who are deeply saddened by Nunez' killing, and who also generally support the aims of Jamaican human-rights groups (although not necessarily all their causes), I will attempt to rectify an apparently pervasive misunderstanding.

Human-rights groups do not primarily exist in order to condemn the murders of citizens, however tragic or repugnant such murders may be. Human-rights groups are primarily focused on the relationship between private individuals and the state, not the relationship between and among private individuals. Why? Because the state (and the state's representatives) are vested with power on our behalf, great power (such as the power to legally administer lethal force) which may place the private individual at a great disadvantage when dealing with agents of the state.

Unequal relationship

It is this unequal relationship that human-rights groups try to navigate. They seek to balance the equation by speaking up for the private individual by (i) calling on the state (primarily the executive) to carry out its duties and employ the governance processes that are in place to enforce laws and protect the vulnerable, and (ii) advocating in courts so that the judiciary may play its role of administering justice.

In contrast, a human-rights group can't really help a private individual navigate his or her relationship with a gunman. It seems that what many want human-rights groups to do is to beat their chests and wail, and issue emotional appeals for the crazed brutes among us to stop the wickedness. But to what effect? Haven't we all have been issuing such appeals and condemnations futilely for decades?

This is not an issue of criminal human-rights versus police human rights. That binary opposition is invalid and misleading. Human rights by their very nature apply to us all, or else they are void and ineffective.

I am, etc.,

Thinking Citizen