MESSAGE FOR INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS DAY BY HON. A.J. NICHOLSON Q.C., ATTORNEY GENERAL AND MINISTER OF JUSTICE


Today, Jamaica joins over two hundred countries across the globe in commemorating International Human Rights Day. This signpost event serves to remind us of the value we place on human rights as a people, and as members of the international community. It reinforces our commitment to basic rights – to justice, to freedom, and to the inherent dignity of human beings.
For the Jamaican Government, this commitment is not merely theoretical. Rather, as is evident by Jamaica’s practice, our country has been keen to accept human rights obligations that are set out in various international treaties. So, for example, Jamaica is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a United Nations treaty that reinforces the right to life, freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of expression. Nor has the Government merely accepted such treaty commitments without giving effect to them in day to day practice. Chapter III of the Jamaican Constitution sets out a significant listing of the main civil and political rights recognized in our country. It is not a coincidence that these fundamental rights and freedoms afforded to all Jamaicans are very similar to the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Jamaica’s commitment to these rights is unshakeable, and the Government will continue its work to ensure that, at the level of implementation, rights recognized by the Jamaican people will be respected by those entrusted with enforcement powers in the society.
From this, and from normal discussion points in the public arena, we might be led to conclude that our rights and freedoms are bound up only with the interaction between members of the security forces and our citizens. Important though that focus undoubtedly might be, it must always be remembered that the pursuit of social justice encompasses far wider imperatives.
For example, Jamaica has also accepted the terms of another major human rights treaty, namely, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Government of Jamaica ratified this treaty in 1976, with significant support from the Opposition, and since that time, both major political parties have sought to implement its terms to the fullest extent possible. Today, as we commemorate International Human Rights Day, I wish to emphasize some of the rights set out in that treaty, and to consider Jamaica’s practice in that area. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights sought to build on the foundation created by the famous Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It emphasizes that all peoples have the right to self-determination, and that men and women must have equal scope for the enjoyment of rights. It then stipulates a list which includes:
the right to work,the right to just and favourable conditions of work;the right of everyone to join the trade union of his or her choice;the right to social security;the right to education; andthe right to health, among others.
Some of the freedoms that are recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are not expressly incorporated in the Jamaican Constitution. So, for example, I do not need to overemphasize that the right to work and the right to health do not find a place in our constitutional guarantees on rights. But this is not surprising. If the Jamaican Constitution were to give recognition to individual rights to work or health, this would imply that the State would have to provide for the protection of such rights in all circumstances. It would also mean that the courts of Jamaica would be able to force employers to provide employment possibilities even where this is economically impractical.
With such reasons in mind, those who prepared the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights made it clear that these rights are mainly developmental goals to be pursued, not entitlements to be given without reference to economic conditions. Of course, as part of our mandate, the Government of Jamaica constantly strives to enhance employment possibilities, health care services and education, for all the people of our country.
But, to be sure, we must acknowledge that economic conditions sometimes prevent us from achieving those optimal goals. We continue our work at improving economic circumstances precisely because we know that matters such as access to education, health and employment are enhanced when the economy is at full throttle.
At the same time, we can pause to celebrate, today, the enjoyment of some of the economic and social rights that we now almost take for granted in Jamaica. In our country, persons have the right to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work, both by law and in practice. Workers are entitled to safe and healthy working conditions, and the Government is committed to ensure that this remains the case.
Also, by virtue of the Equal Pay Act, men and women are entitled to equal pay for equal work.
Many of the positive features of the current Jamaican workplace have been won after years of struggle by workers acting through trade unions and other workers’ organizations. And indeed, as a nation we must constantly pay tribute to those who have been pioneers in the cause of trade unionism and workers’ rights in Jamaica. Their efforts have led to many signal improvements in the status of workers, but, perhaps most importantly, they have engendered an environment in which we are moved to be ever watchful.
Section 24 of the Jamaican Constitution prohibits discrimination on several grounds, but it must be stressed that, discrimination is prevented or reduced as much by vibrant public opinion as it is by legal provisions. This is an enduring part of the legacy of the National Heroes, The Rt. Excellent Norman Washington Manley, and The Rt. Excellent Sir Alexander Bustamante, and those two champions of the rights of our workers, The Most Honourable Hugh Lawson Shearer who, sadly, left us quite recently and The Most Honourable Michael Manley, whose birth date we mark today.
Naturally, Jamaica’s respect for workers’ rights must be measured by the actual experience of workers when they pursue their calling. In addition, however, Jamaica has been keen to signal our commitments in this area by becoming party to various Conventions of the International Labour Organization concerning human development through workers’ rights. These include:
The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention;The Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention;The Equal Remuneration Convention; andThe Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention.
We are party to these Conventions not just for fanciful purposes; we fully support workers’ rights in matters such as collective bargaining, the right to associate and to organize and, as I have already emphasized, freedom from discrimination.
International Human Rights Day provides us with the opportunity to reflect on our achievements in all areas of our human rights and freedoms, and to note the areas in which we may be deficient. The promotion and protection of those freedoms require constant vigilance, both within and without Government.
We will press ahead with our work; and, even in the face of adversity, we will seek to ensure the full recognition and acceptance of basic human rights and dignity for all Jamaicans.
We do this not because others may be looking over our shoulders. Rather, we do this because we are satisfied that the protection of human rights – your rights and mine – constitute one of the fundamental purposes of Government and, for all of us, the real manifestation of our right to be here. I wish for all Jamaicans a meaningful and reflective International Human Rights Day 2004.

JIS Social