Jamaica reported 1,500 homicides last year. In such environments of high insecurity, citizens’ rights often take a back seat to in the demand for government action and security. Carolyn Gomes, the executive director and co-founder of Jamaicans for Justice, has emerged as an outspoken leader for defendant’s rights, dedicating specific attention to exposing and lowering the incidence of extrajudicial killings, which JFJ estimates to number around 1,250 between 2000 and 2007.
Last week, Dr. Gomes and six other activists were awarded the UN Human Rights Prize for demonstrating firm commitment to the advancement of human rights worldwide.
Gomes, formerly a pediatrician, founded Jamaicans for Justice in 1999 after the country’s gasoline riots left six civilians dead and unveiled many of the tensions that had been racking Jamaican society. Jamaica’s murder rate, 49 per 100,000 is among the world’s highest. Such rates often provoke vigilante justice, and Gomes has been an outspoken critic of human rights violations perpetrated in the name of public security. She’s not alone: Amnesty International has claimed the “Jamaican authorities are willfully neglecting the poorest communities by failing to tackle the violence…that is shattering inner cities.” JFJ currently monitors 350 cases, “primarily of state abuse of rights,” assists families of victims of police violence to obtain third-party autopsies, and helps victims obtain legal council.
The world is listening. JFJ has established developing partnerships with international bodies and organizations that include Amnesty International, USAID (Ja.), The Carter Center, and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).
Earlier this month, Jamaicans for Justice co-sponsored a public forum with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHRC) and the Jamaican Ministry of Justice on the commission’s first visit to an English-speaking Caribbean nation in more than a decade. The IAHRC, while acknowledging actions taken by the government, reported that government policies to assure human rights were insufficient. The delegation cited reports of deaths that “…took place in circumstances consistent with extrajudicial executions at the hands of police officers.” The report also notes that “…police use measures of excessive force and arbitrary arrest and detention, further aggravating the situation of fear and victimization of the population.”
Gomes shows no signs of slowing down. Upon receiving the award, she called on the Jamaican government to “ensure that the rights of all its citizens are respected and protected,” and added, “Our progress as a nation will be dependent on putting respect for human rights as the central focus of development."
The UN Human Rights prize, awarded every five years since its inception in 1968, was also awarded to Louise Arbour, Benazir Bhutto, Ramsey Clark, Dr. Carolyn Gomes, Dr. Denis Mukwege, Sr. Dorothy Stang, and Human Rights Watch. Past recipients of the prize have included Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr.