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Urgent need for progress on human rights in 2014

Wednesday, January 08, 2014    

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Today, the Observer debuts a column that will focus on the myriad human rights and justice issues that affect Jamaica. It is intended to shed light and give insight on the ills, successes and possibilities for human rights development.

HUMAN rights in Jamaica continue to be a paradox. For while on the one hand we talk about justice and respect for each other, on the other there is still so much work to be done. As we reflect on 2013 and some of the progress we have made, we are even more acutely aware of the journey ahead. While there are many areas in which Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) wants to see progress in 2014, for the purposes of this, our first column, we will focus on two areas of great ongoing concern.

Children in custody of the state

Children in state care and in conflict with the law have been living on unfulfilled promises since Independence. There have been well-intentioned announcements, but what has actually materialised has not had a substantial impact on how our children have been treated. The idea that children in these systems are "bad" and have no future has been entrenched for decades. However, the reality cannot be further from the truth.

Many children in the correctional and remand institutions are there for non-violent acts, and most children are there for being deemed uncontrollable, many dealing with traumatic pasts.

In the last year, there have been many key promises made by the Government, some that will further worsen the problem, such as continuing to keep children in police lock-ups, and others that we support. These include:

* Immediately de-gazetting Horizon Adult Remand Centre and Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre as juvenile centres.

* Reviewing and amending the Child Care and Protection Act and Corrections Act.

* Ensuring that children in conflict with the law have quality legal representation.

* Implementing policies that will lead towards a paradigm shift of punitive to rehabilitative ideals in the child care system.

We cannot define children by their worst acts and treat them in a way that reinforces this view of them. It is time we fulfil our promises to provide them with a fair chance in life.

Police fatal shootings

Last year Jamaica saw more than 230 police killings and the society is still not more secure, as we also had 1,198 murders. The Government and the police commissioner need to appreciate that security and human rights are not incompatible or diametrically opposed. What needs to be become clear is that we cannot kill our way to a more secure Jamaica. In order to have a society in which we can feel safe, we must be able to trust the agents of the state to obey the rule of law, and the citizens to co-operate with the police.

The year 2014 must be different in the way we approach the issues surrounding police accountability. The delays throughout the systems must be addressed to move speedily towards resolution of cases of questionable police killings. These delays occur at points in the system such as the Government Forensic Lab, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) and the courts, particularly the Coroner's Court.

The delays in rulings from the ODPP can work counter to obtaining justice, and in a number of instances it takes years for a ruling to be given. One egregious example of this was seen last year with a request from the ODPP for the police to do in 2013 an ID parade for a killing that occurred in 2007. The file for this had been with the ODPP for a number of years.

Presently, we have over 400 cases in the Coroner's Court, some dating over ten years. The Special Coroner, as the amendment to the Coroner's Act provides, is to be assisted by deputy coroners. To date, three years after the establishment of that office, not one assistant coroner has been appointed.

Police officers will continue to have a cloud of suspicion over their heads and grieving families will be unable to heal if these matters are not dealt with.

JFJ continues to believe that Jamaicans have the requisite ability, skills, expertise and knowledge to deal with these problems that face us. The question is, do we have the will to do so?

Email your comments and queries to editorial@jamaicaobserver.com

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