Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

[i]AQ[/i] talks to Jamaica’s Carolyn Gomes, winner of the 2008 UN Human Rights Prize.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Jamaican activist Carolyn Gomes received the human rights award for her crusade against extra-judicial killings. Gomes, a former pediatrician who founded Jamaicans for Justice a decade ago, talks to Americas Quarterly about why her country has one of the world’s highest rates of gang murders and police-related assassinations.

Americas Quarterly: How will the United Nations Human Rights Prize affect your ability to bring greater attention to the challenges faced by Jamaicans today?

Gomes: We hope it will provide visibility for the work that our society does not necessarily see. We have a real problem in Jamaica. For many decades human rights have been equated with criminal rights, dividing our efforts and voice. This award can hopefully provide us with needed legitimacy and recognition.

AQ: Why have human rights been equated with criminal rights in Jamaica?

Gomes: Perhaps because it challenges some of the assumptions that people are comfortable with. Realizing that the police are in fact murdering people puts you in a frightening and lonely position. This is quite uncomfortable because you then have to ask: “Whom do I trust?” [When crime is high] people want to be secure and they just want things to be dealt with. Until you raise the issue of human rights and the need for a new process, people will see our work as interfering with the police efforts.

AQ: Jamaica has long had problems with inequality and high rates of violence. What domestic factors have contributed to this?

Gomes: You must take into account the history of slavery and the devaluation of the human being that came along with that. But we are not unique. You also have to look at what happened in Jamaica’s social and political systems over the years beginning with our pre-independence and post-independence periods in the 1960s. During the Cold War, and especially under Prime Minister Michael Manley in the early to mid-1970s, socialist rhetoric sparked active internal and external resistance.

Politics became divided along ideological lines, and resistance was seen throughout society, whether it was against communism or aimed at enemies of the revolution. Political parties then resorted to gang-like activities. Gangs of young men, driven by strong tribal divisions, were given guns to defend their parties’ ideology and leaders. That phase generally subsided in the 1980s, with the source of the violence then changing to the drug trade and Colombian narcotrafficking. We’ve always had ganja here, but now you had the political gangs, with their guns and willingness to shoot, caught up in the drug trade and becoming more and more autonomous from the politicians, but still aligned with the parties.

The situation has not gotten better since then. The police force became tied up in this ideological struggle and aligned itself with political parties, and society came to think that it was OK to use violence to solve problems.

AQ: What do you see as the way forward?

Gomes: Our starting point has got to be the individual. So we keep asking people to challenge their assumptions and see the victims of police excesses and abuse as persons rather than as just numbers. Police action and corruption have distanced [the security forces] from the public and, in turn, fueled the rise in crime. This type of police approach has brought major costs to society.

AQ: The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visited Jamaica in December to investigate the high incidence of extra-judicial killings. How effective was the visit?

Gomes: Very good. This was the first time in 14 years that the Commission had visited the English-speaking Caribbean, and they were surprised to learn how bad the situation was in certain instances.

We pushed hard for the visit to happen. One of the challenges we still face is that people’s idea of Jamaica is “no problem, man.” So the situation here was being overlooked in the international community, and for that reason, in 2001, we started taking cases to the Inter-American Commission. We’ve now finished two reports on impunity for police killings, looking at the factors that allow it to persist and [exploring] the depth of the problem. We are hoping that the Commission’s final report will be enough of an embarrassment to keep the momentum for change going. It will likely be out in time for the Commission’s fall session.

AQ: What type of response have you gotten from the Jamaican government?

Gomes: It has varied—both from the government and society. Initially there was a great deal of hostility and suspicion, and we were called stooges of the political opposition. But over time we have gained more legitimacy—primarily because we stay focused and respectful, but firm. A change in government has also resulted in a greater emphasis being placed on our agenda. There are also legislative changes being made—and we are participating very actively in that—but the government’s primary responsibility has got to be protecting citizens’ lives. And if it is failing to do that, then we must ask: what measures must be taken to fix it?

AQ: You were awarded the UN prize along with Louise Arbour, Benazir Bhutto, Ramsey Clark, Dr. Denis Mukwege, Sr. Dorothy Stang, and Human Rights Watch. Who are some other human rights activists you admire?

Gomes: One of the interesting things about this prize is that you feel like you’re not worthy. There are so many people who on a day-to-day basis get up and say “no.” The challenges that the region faces are so similar… Brazil for instance is experiencing police abuse and police killings. There’s a group in Saint Vincent that stuck its neck out in defense of a policewoman who claimed to have been raped by the prime minister, and went to court on behalf of this woman. So it’s hard to be singled out for recognition—almost like I shouldn’t accept it.

I admire, for example, the women we work with, the mothers of the dead children who get up day after day and face down attempts to intimidate them from doing their work. They get up and say: “No, I’m not accepting this, I’m not going to be paid off, I’m not going to be intimidated.” There are also the people who take their lives into their hands to go to court and testify on behalf of people whom they are not related to.

AQ: Human rights in the hemisphere have progressed substantially since the 1970s and 1980s, while what is thought of as a human right continues to evolve. What do you think are some of the greatest human rights challenges that the region faces today?

Gomes: Every child that has to go to a substandard school is a child whose human rights are abused. Every person who doesn’t have social security or social support or the chance to get a decent job or a decent standard of living—that’s an abuse of their rights, and it’s a threat to the development of democracy. The inequity and the inequality that have widened and worsened over the last 10 to 15 years are a threat to human rights. Development issues—adequate standards of living and housing—all tie in together with human rights.

But obviously the primary threat to human rights is the right to life. Violent crime and rising murder rates, inept and corrupt police forces, the abuse of citizens’ rights, and the fight against crime are immediate challenges, certainly in Jamaica. If a society loses faith that the government is going to keep it safe, if its solution to every problem is a stabbing or gunshot, then you are in a situation of anarchy where there is no acceptance of other’s rights.

AQ: Social networking on sites like Facebook has become a powerful tool for convening individuals, as was witnessed in the 2008 worldwide protests against the FARC in Colombia. How has your group harnessed new technologies and new media to spread its message and work more effectively?

Gomes: We have a very vibrant and free media, so we have built strong relationships with many media practitioners in Jamaica, which allows us to get the information out widely. One of the challenges that we face is the fact that not enough of us speak Spanish, so it cuts off some of the regional exchanges that would be helpful. But there are fledgling efforts to build networks and regionalize efforts in the English-speaking Caribbean. Increasingly the Internet allows more instant interchange, which we can build on going forward.

AQ: Do you have any advice for your counterparts in the region?

Gomes: One of the things that we have learned from this is the necessity to not become discouraged. Legitimacy requires not only courage and a loud voice but also documentation and a willingness to keep challenging, to keep pushing, to be clear when you make a statement, and to make a statement based on facts. Time must be taken to analyze the situation and develop position papers to always try to be as factual and as fair as possible. But you must be prepared to stand up and to say: “This is where I stand.”

Tags: Carolyn Gomes, Human Rights, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Jamaica
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter