Critiquing Human Rights in Jamaica: Who Gets to Speak and What is Its Actual Value?


Traditionally, the discussion of human rights in Jamaica has been conducted in what may be considered ‘the privileged voice’. This speaks to the privileged positions occupied, in many ways, by those Jamaicans who set themselves up as ‘the authority’. This extends even in the case of Jamaicans who live outside of the country. The privileged voice, therefore, gets to set the tone of the discussion, if not the discussion itself and arrogate unto itself the wherewithal to determine who has access to the conversation and who does not – a kind of gate-keeping practise like we have never seen before!

In that regard, if you are not considered part of the inner-circle of the ‘privileged voice(s)’ then your position is largely seen as hostile, if not counter productive in terms of how this conversation on (human) rights is constructed and performed here. A case in point is a recent exchange between myself and some members of human rights groups in Jamaica, on Face Book. Without expounding on those details, several attempts were made in different ways to ridicule, if not censure the fact that I openly acknowledged, as I have also done previously, that I am not a member of any known and or named human rights group in Jamaica.

Obviously, my lack of direct involvement in the human rights community in Jamaica does not preclude me from commenting, substantively, on this very important issue which affects us all, however. Indeed, the impression that only, if not mostly, those with a known track record on human rights issues in Jamaica are either able to comment fulsomely on its implications in this country or for that matter offer solutions is plainly wrong. Thus, it relegates those percieved to be on the ‘outside’ to a defensive posture in this very important discussion, wherein they are constructed as either threatening and or counter productive to the goals of the movement.

This position is, of course, largely inaccurate and definitely insiderist. Its sole aim is to politicise poverty to the extent that it is set up as in explicitly dichotomous relationship with the state vis-a-vis human rights (organisations). Here, ‘Government’ is perceived as almost always complicit in strangling the personal and other freedoms of a particular kind of ‘poor people’ and as result, is directly implicated in the high rates of murder exhibited each year in Jamaica, especially those committed by the Jamaican Constabulary Force (JCF). Thus, perceived the JCF is, by and large, construed as the enemy of ‘poor people’.

Consequently, those sent to save us all from this unfortunate cocktail of oppression, murder and despair are a select group of people with credentials which largely mark them as ‘uptown’, if not ‘upper middle class’ Jamaicans. Indeed, there is nothing, necessarily wrong with this reality in and of itself. This is in the sense in which the police are often implicated in some especially heinous crimes which the news media does not hesitate to bombard us with each evening. Thus, it is important that a dedicated group of volunteers and non-Governmental Organisations, with both the resources and time, are devoted to addressing this cause.

Still, the references/ registers in which human rights are encoded in Jamaica nonetheless warrant questioning. This is epecially in terms of how human rights groups in Jamaica impact the development of a functioning and functionable civil society; that is, one which empowers regular, ordinary citizens with the aim of including them in the process of goverance at various levels. It may, therefore, be argued that through their own actions; however noble, the near universal focus on seeing Government as the enemy and, rarely, ever including the voices of (poor) people directly impacted by the causes they champion, human rights groups inadvertently sideline and or stifle the development of a functioning civil society in Jamaica.

Human rights continues to be a devalued conversation/ topic of interests in Jamaica, in part, because it is largely seen as only advocating the views of otherwise intolerable values and attitudes, such as claiming rights for known murderers and other anarchists in the state, including homosexuals. This is not to say that I agree with this position, however. On the contrary, it is argue that, in Jamaica any unofficial poll of the so-called ‘man in the streets’ would confirm that this is not only the common perception there is also a great deal of concern and anxiety over how to treat with these matters, especially where people seem to have less and less faith in the ‘Government’ to provide meaningful answers to their plights, currently.

In that regard, claims made by some members of the referenced Face Book conversation that, a Don Anderson poll found that 43% of Jamaicans do not care about whether someone was murdered, presumably, in cold blood are to be rigourously questioned. This is because it implies that, Jamaicans do not care about (each other) which also, presumably, explains the reasons why murders occur with such impunity in the society and, perhaps also why human rights groups face such a hard time winning support for their cause. Hence, there is no end in sight for the meoteric murder rate, in terms of the needless loss of seemingly expendable, black lives, especially those in Downtown, Kingston.

Significantly, these figures do not define how ‘care’ is operationalised, as well as the implications which follow from such a conclusion. Indeed, they do not even make a connection between why people would not be concerned about as obviously as distressing a matter such as crime and violence here, whether that presumably sanctioned by the state or for that matter random or even calculated acts of violence conducted by person outside of that group. Consequently, there is need for greater awareness building, in terms of working with institutions like the media, church groups, community based organisations and others to celebrate successful human rights cases as a way of raising the profile of the disussion.

Further, any suggestion that we are somehow unable to initiate a ‘culture of peace’ with the now, obviously, unacceptable ‘culture of violence’ which suppousedly characterises all of Jamaican society through negotiation and partnership is flawed. Certainly, no one is suggesting that this be the only approach, nor that we meet and engage in discussions with known criminals. However, there is much value in the way of real engagement between traditionally warring factions, especially in cases where there are areas of common interests.

A more gentle approach which does not seek to demonise all with whom it does not agree must also be considered. This requires real commitment and not half hearted attempts which go no further than merely expressing alarm over vioent incidents. After all, so long as they do not touch us then all is well. It is important to note therefore that, human rights are rights not just limited to violent murders ‘Downtown’, but also involves the systemic and entrenched economic and class systems which orchestrate the untimely destruction of innocent Jamaican lives and also life chances.

With respect, therefore, making a great noise about crime in Jamaica and engaging in long, impassioned discussions about just how ‘unacceptable’ it all is, as representative of our frustrations with the current state of affairs does not truly help. If there are no reasons to be hopeful then we are all in trouble. What is then, is the track record of our successes in this area? How many human rights issues have been successfully resolved in its history in Jamaica?

And, why have we not, in addition to campaigning for the rights of others, show how these strategies have worked in the past? At what point do we recongise that, while we discuss the proverbial Rome, in this case Jamaica, burns? What then would it profit the so-called ‘regular’, ‘ordinary’ Jamaican to sit back and callously enjoy the savage murder of other innocent Jamaicans? The traditional view of ‘poor people’ as ‘victims’ and police officers as ‘bullies’ and the state as supportive of/ enabling this narrative, in which police excesses are excused under the rubric of some spurious ‘investigation’, continues the trajectory in which the skills necessary for coping with the problems in the society are ignored.

As a result, the question of the successful examples is a valid one because, whether we are still caught in the trap of the colonial militia set up to immobilise poor, disenfranchised black people, historically, we still need to have hope! How do we get ‘buy-in’ and build consensus through actual empowerment? Where are the solutions from the people who are also directly affected by these harsh realities? And, why is it that, to suggest that there is need for this kind of broad based partnership, at the levels at which civil society plays a greater role, if even facilitated by the state, are not usually seen as legitimate options? Could it be that we do not want solutions? Or, is that, we have also given up hope? Lost sight of our commitment to service? Service, after all, encompasses even the difficult and trying times and the perseverance that comes with the hope of success.

Who wants to fight if there is no end is sight? Who wishes to make time for causes that have no heroes; no faces to celebrate in order to galvanise further support, if even at grassroots levels? What of the views of the mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers and communities in pain? Where are the job training and esteem empowerment workshops that will equip disadvantaged and at risk people with new skills to tackle the problems in their communities?

Unless there are actual solutions then this is a pointless exercise. Unless we are actually doing more than demonising Government, though they are very much deserving of that, then we are doing extremely very little. Unless we are widening out our frames of reference to see human rights as the rights of all Jamaicans, even those with other issues beyond a murdered son, or daughter then we have not yet started this especially important discussion.

Human rights include more than just a fight against homophobia; though it must have this as an important pillar of its make up. Human rights must also get to the root of the problems which give rise to these issues in the first place – the colonial patriarchal misogynistic attitudes enshrined by the state and practised as class politics in Jamaica. If we are not also engaging in this discussion and finding solutions to those problems too, then we are all dead in the water – no pun intended.

There must be more than just talk; there has also got to be action; and real action to boot!

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2 thoughts on “Critiquing Human Rights in Jamaica: Who Gets to Speak and What is Its Actual Value?

  1. Hmmm. I see where you are coming from, but commentary somewhat ahistorical and lacking while claiming to cover the whole history of HR in Jamaica. Besides, you are really talking about JFJ, so why not just say that? You are also reducing HR work to the kind of activism that is being done on state violence by these “privileged voices”. Isn’t that really just ONE example of human rights work that is being done in Ja, albeit the form that has occupied JFJ? And you don’t even have a single word to say about the work that feminist organizations have been doing for years! Dare I say the obvious? Women’s rights are human rights!! Has nothing changed in terms of the way you UWI folks analyze social issues in Jamaica?

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    1. Longbench! Long time! I am heartened to see and hear from you, even inasmuch as I am being labeled as ‘you UWI folks’! Thanks for your comments!

      That being said, let us turn to the business of your remarks regarding what I have said. First off, I am not reducing anything. It is a position that I try to stay away from as much as I am able to reductivist reasoning which presumes to know and understand all of the ramifications of a particular issue without first acknowledging the areas outside of our own awareness that limits such an understanding. Indeed, I am gesturing to the fact that the discussion around human rights in Jamaica seems to have been hijacked into a demonisation of the state which always makes me uncomfortable not so much because the state has not been complicit in this state of affairs but because the impression that has been created is that the state alone should fix the problem! Remove the state and the actors, therein and the problems are solved!

      That, of course, is ridiculous reasoning insofar as the state is not only just the government of elected officials but also constitutes the range of institutions within a society that legitimises and enacts the values and or attitudes which are deemed as official. In that regard, the comment about ‘privilege’ such as it is, is also a comment about the ways that those who benefit directly from that privilege are also complicit in fostering some of the very attitudes about which they argue and make a great noise.

      Now, is that to say that all human rights organisations in Jamaica are the same, or for that matter the issue of who dominates is sufficient to exclude the work of feminist activists? No it is not! However, in this post I was aiming to see a way in which the hierarchic positions of those in hegemony (whoever they are!) have presented a real obstacle to tackling some of these issues as well as getting to heart of what also hails the society and, therefore, contribute to entrenching man of these abuses.

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