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2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at this important juncture Jamaica, like other countries, faces unprecedented challenges. Although sixty years have passed, the tenets in the Universal Declaration are as relevant today, if not more so. Crimes such as trafficking in firearms, terrorism, and trafficking in persons, threaten the very fabric of our society and seek to undermine the freedoms set out in that Universal Declaration. The dilemma that we are confronted with is striking that balance between meeting those emerging challenges that threaten our security while continuing to protect, preserve and respect the human rights of all. The institutions of justice are required to respond.
Jamaica continues to stand in solidarity with other nations in its commitment to respect and preserve human rights as demonstrated by the fact that Jamaica is a party to the major international conventions concerning the protection of human rights, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Jamaica’s Constitution as well as other laws seek to protect and preserve basic human rights. This confirms Jamaica’s faith in fundamental rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.
Jamaica became a member of the United Nations on September 18, 1962 and a year later, one of Jamaica’s former Prime Ministers, The Right Honourable Hugh Lawson Shearer, deputizing for Sir Alexander Bustamante, at the 1963 General Assembly of the United Nations proposed that the year 1968 be designated the International Year for Human Rights in observance of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Jamaica’s commitment to the protection of human rights was again demonstrated when in 1967, our proposal for an international conference to review progress in the field of human rights, was again accepted.
This commitment also manifests itself in the steps being taken to create the highest quality of legal and judicial practices and to promote social progress and better standards of life for all. Recognizing that protection of the most vulnerable is of highest priority for Jamaica, the Government has implemented a number of initiatives aimed at securing the human rights of women and children. One such measure currently underway, under the auspices of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs, is the drafting of an anti- harassment policy framework. It seeks to address violence against women in the workplace, educational and other institutions. It also addresses the vexed issues of gender equity and equality and occupational health and safety for women and girls.
Along with this initiative, the Government is seeking to pass by early 2009 the Sexual Offences Act, modernizing the law in this area as it relates to sexual offences and seeking to offer greater protection to victims of sexual violence. The Bill proposes to make evidence of the sexual history of a complainant with persons other than the accused inadmissible except with the permission of a judge and it also recognises the offence of marital rape.
Recognising the particular vulnerability of children, the Government has therefore established a National Task Force on Child Abuse Prevention, an inter- ministerial and multi-agency effort, that has identified short, medium and long-term measures to curb child abuse in all its facets. It envisages the strengthening of the Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse and to seek the cooperation of the cable and television providers as well as the mobile phone companies in partnership with the Constabulary Communication Network to display photographs and carry information on missing children.
Additionally, the Government believes that the enjoyment of human rights must be accompanied by access to justice. To this end, both physical and legislative measures are being undertaken to rehabilitate and modernize the courts. Legislation has been passed increasing the number of Masters, and Judges in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Additional criminal courts have been put in place at the Supreme Court.
These have been accompanied by the introduction of Real Time Transcription technology in four criminal courtrooms at the Supreme Court and the training of staff to handle the technology. These Judges are no longer required to write their own notes by hand and transcripts of cases can now be produced the same day.
At the Resident Magistrates’ Court level it is our intention to introduce audio-digital recording of cases which will then be automatically transcribed to a computer with special software. Magistrates will no longer have to take notes by hand. This will speed up the production of written judgments.
A new Resident Magistrate’s court has been built in Port Antonio, Portland and new outstations have been built at Cambridge, St. James and Balaclava, St. Elizabeth.
The Family Court continues to work with its partners in educating parents through parenting seminars.
The Coroner’s (Amendment) Act, which will establish the Office of Special Coroner to sit island wide and conduct inquests in cases where deaths are alleged to have occurred at the hands of the security forces and other agents of the state was recently passed in the Senate and has now gone to the House of Representatives.
The Government is taking the required steps to ensure transparency and effectiveness in the investigation processes. A Bill entitled The Independent Commission of Investigations (ICI) Act 2008, is currently before a Joint Select Committee of Parliament. This new legislation makes provisions for the expansion of the regime for the investigation of abuse by the security forces and other agents of the state. This will also address allegations of human rights violations by the security forces and other agents of the state. This entity (ICI) will replace the Police Public Complaints Authority.
In order to strengthen the anti-corruption institutions of the country, another Joint Select Committee of Parliament is currently considering a Bill entitled, The Corruption Prevention (Special Prosecutor) Act 2008, which will establish the Office of the Special Prosecutor who will investigate and prosecute alleged acts of corruption in the public and private sectors.
In recognition that fundamental rights and freedoms cannot be enjoyed in isolation, the Government has also embarked on programmes of social intervention aimed at alleviating poverty and improving the socio-economic well being of our citizens and their quality of life.
These are but a few of the mechanisms that the Government has adopted to protect citizens against the abuse of human rights in any form.
The Government of Jamaica remains committed to ensuring that it conforms to both the spirit and letter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and will continue to work with human rights organizations and individuals to raise awareness and ensure that the protection of human rights in Jamaica is guaranteed.