By Neil Armstrong
Pride Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario – Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization, is calling on Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, parliamentarians, and other leaders to consistently condemn violence and discrimination.
The organization wants Simpson Miller to uphold her election campaign pledge that “no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.”
On October 23, Human Rights Watch released a report, Not Safe At Home: Violence and Discrimination against LGBT people in Jamaica, in Toronto, just hours after its authors flew in from Kingston, Jamaica where the report was launched on October 21.
It notes that in December 2011 when the prime minister made that pledge, she also called for the legislature to revisit Jamaica’s buggery laws, however, on “April 3, 2014, she stated in an interview that repealing the law would be ‘based on the will of the constituents,’ and that repeal was not a ‘priority’.”
In his Budget Debate presentation, Andrew Holness, Leader of the Opposition proposed that a grand referendum be held in 2015 during local government election to address the uncertainties surrounding: review of the Buggery Law, the liberalization of ganja laws, the Queen of England as the Head of State, and the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica’s final appeal court.
“Prime Minister, there is great uncertainty in the LGBT community and ordinary Jamaicans alike about your promise to review the Buggery Act. The issue is very sensitive of course, I am sure you will agree that more Jamaicans, in general and interest groups are more open to discussion on the matter. A way to finally bring some certainty to the matter would be to put it to the people,” he said.
“Meaningful progress will require a deeper commitment to equality on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, particularly by the police. Progress will also require strong leadership from Jamaica’s government in face of intense public resistance to any type of legal reform that would uphold the rights of LGBT people,” said the report in its summary.
The new report wants Parliament to strike down all discriminatory laws and replace them with laws that protect Jamaicans from discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director, a South African and Rhon Reynolds, LGBT researcher, a Jamaican, told a packed room at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, last week, that they spoke with activists, government officials and the police about the report while in the island.
Among its 34 recommendations, Human Rights Watch wants Prime Minster Simpson Miller to translate her pledge “into concrete policy by proposing comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that prohibits all forms of discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, in all areas governed by law.”
Reid said Human Rights Watch published a report in 2004, Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic, and as a result activists in Jamaica approached it to do another report ten years later to see if anything had changed over that time.
The organization is recommending that the Ministry of National Security closely monitor the implementation of the JCF Policy on Diversity and issue regular, public reports on its implementation.
It wants the Jamaica Constabulary Force to “undertake prompt, independent, and effective investigations into all allegations of violence, including those that may be motivated on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Another recommendation to the police is to, “build a stronger working relationship with Jamaica’s leading LGBT organizations, including J-FLAG and Quality of Citizenship Jamaica. Work consistently and systemically with these organizations to develop sensitization and human rights training, and collaborate with them to identify and document incidences of violence.”
Among its recommendations to the Ministry of Health, Human Rights Watch wants the ministry to “develop guidelines and training on non-discrimination for all state health personnel. Ensure that all staff – not only medical professionals, but receptionists, janitors, and others – are adequately trained and sensitized.”
In its recommendations to Parliament, it calls for the repeal and amendment of sections of the Offenses against the Person Act, amending and repealing of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms in Jamaica’s Constitution, adopting inclusive hate crimes legislation and establishing a National Human Rights Institution.
It wants Parliament to “repeal Sections 76, 77, and 79 of the Offenses against the Person Act, which criminalize consensual adult same-sex conduct” and to “amend the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms to include a specific prohibition of discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Regarding international donors, Human Rights Watch recommends that they, “in funding public health efforts in Jamaica, ensure that programs aimed at HIV prevention and treatment, particularly those targeting men who have sex with men and transgender people, are adequately funded. Ensure that adequate services are available for victims of sexual and gender-based violence and that they are accessible to LGBT people.”
Reid said there has been a request for Human Rights Watch to do more regional work in the Caribbean and noted that a challenge for some was engaging the faith communities.
He urged Canadians to support local, autonomous groups that are doing important work in Jamaica, and want them to press the Canadian government to continue to see this as a priority issue.
The LGBT rights director said non-discrimination policies are important globally and that employers should provide legal protection, where necessary, to their employees.
He noted that there is an economic cost of homophobia and that an enormous opportunity exists for more than just redress.
Brenda Cossman, director of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto and a co-chair of the WorldPride Human Rights Conference in June, also a sponsor of last Thursday’s event, said Toronto has become a hub of global LGBT activism.
Meanwhile, Michael Charles, LGBT Chair of Human Rights Canada, in his opening remarks said there are thousands of people of the Caribbean Diaspora who reside in Toronto and as a result, “the Caribbean is here and we are the Caribbean.”
Citing the killing of 16-year-old Dwayne Jones, who was dressed in women’s clothing at a dance party in Montego Bay on July 21, 2013, Human Rights Watch said the story “lies at one extreme end a continuum of violence experienced by Jamaicans who identify as lesbian, gay transgender, or bisexual.”
It said the circumstances of the murder provide a snapshot of the current situation facing many LGBT people in Jamaica: a high risk of violence, vulnerability heightened by poverty and family rejection, and mixed responses from both the authorities and the public.
The organization conducted five weeks of field research in Jamaica in April and June 2013, interviewing 71 LGBT people as well as state officials and other stakeholders.
It noted that the JCF has taken steps to address homophobic and transphobic violence by developing a Policy on Diversity, in consultation with J-FLAG, which requires police to ensure that LGBT people and other vulnerable groups can safely file police reports.
The policy establishes a mechanism to monitor police non-compliance but Human Rights Watch was not able to ascertain whether any police had been held accountable for non-compliance.
However, the report notes that police protection remains inadequate, and is among several factors that contribute to the specific vulnerability of LGBT people.
“Families and neighbors often drive LGBT people from their homes and communities; landlords refuse to rent to LGBT persons, denying them housing; health providers stigmatize them when they seek services; and employers arbitrarily fire them,” said the report.
It noted that many LGBT Jamaicans become effectively homeless because they are forced to flee their homes and sometimes the country, and denied full citizenship rights.
“Among the most vulnerable are dozens of gay and transgender Jamaican children and young adults who have been rejected by their families and are living on the streets, where they face violence and harassment by police and the public,” the report said.
“I am happy to see another report 10 years after the 2004 “Hated to Death” one. It has covered some keys issues and points to the fact that the situation of LGBT people in Jamaica have not improved but have worsened since the last 5 years,” says Karlene Williams-Clarke, a Jamaican, who is the LGBTQ Newcomer Community Services Coordinator at the 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto, and who coordinates the Among Friends LGBTQ Refugee Peer Support program.
“The only thing that has improved is more LGBT folks are coming out to talk about the challenges they face and telling their stories. More youths are homeless and now living in sewers. While I like some of their recommendations I still believe that it will not be taken seriously by the Jamaican government and LGBT Jamaicans will continue to suffer, especially with the organized effort of the church that is obviously influencing the government.
“I thank Human Rights Watch for bringing to light that homophobia (violence) is still alive and well in Jamaica and that, as a nation, we need to take positive steps to protect everyone, including LGBT people,” she added.
Human Rights Watch is an organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world.