Tue | Oct 22, 2019

Glenroy Murray | Human rights, securitisation, and media missteps

Published:Sunday | September 22, 2019 | 12:26 AM
Glenroy Murray
A soldier keeps watch at a checkpoint in Sevens Heights, Clarendon, one of several parishes under a state of emergency, on Thursday, September 5. The increasing usage of states of emergency, with hundreds of soldiers and police on the ground, is pointing to Jamaica becoming a police state, argues Glenroy Murray.
Broadcaster Kalilah Reynolds last week criticised "Human Rights Twitter" for opposing states of emergency as a crime-reduction strategy.
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For better or for worse, states of emergency (SOE) have become part of the Government of Jamaica’s crime-reduction strategy. The constitutional tool designed to respond to terrorism, war and natural disaster – none of which are, or have been, affecting Jamaica – is now being used to address crime and violence in general, including gang violence.

This has happened as a result of the mishandling of human-rights discourse not only by politicians and human-rights practitioners, like myself, but also because of disdainful and dismissive media practitioners who use their platforms to share their limited world view and misinform the public about what human rights are and why they are important.

For clarity, human rights set the basic standard for everyone to be treated. In mesolectal Jamaican: “All if yuh caan stand di smaddy, you must treat them wid respect.”

Critically, human rights are seen as both inalienable and indivisible. Inalienable means that you will always have your rights, regardless of whether you are arrested, detained and imprisoned and, therefore, will always be entitled to basic forms of human decency. Indivisible means that all rights are equally important. Protecting the right to life does not mean that you get to unduly limit freedom of movement, the right to vote, or the right to a fair trial.

The rights protected in Jamaica are captured in 19 guarantees within the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, 2011. By virtue of Section 13(9), the state of emergency mechanism allows for the limitation of only three of these 19 rights: the freedom of movement, the freedom from arbitrary arrest, and the right to have a trial be held publicly.

Sections 13(10) and (11) provide for periodic reviews of the detention of persons under an SOE. Any action taken under an SOE that limits the exercise of the rights of a Jamaican is constitutionally required to be reasonably justifiable.

I repeat these mundane facts about human rights and SOEs because the point must be made that the SOE is not above scrutiny, regardless of the fact that many compare the current state of affairs to warlike conditions. It is bound constitutionally to meet human-rights standards agreed upon by our own Parliament. In the same way the SOE is being used as a measure to ensure the rule of law, it also must be bound by the rule of law.

Human rights are not just airy-fairy principles being spouted by a privileged few who don’t understand the severity of crime in Jamaica, as we practitioners are often framed. Human rights form part of the highest law in Jamaica and the security forces are bound to uphold them as much as they are bound to uphold criminal law.

I would stop here to acknowledge that many human-rights practitioners have failed to adequately show the link between police work and human rights. Police aim to protect our rights to life, liberty and security, among others. Human rights permeate all sectors of Government as it attempts to meet our basic needs and protect us from harm. True human-rights practitioners want the security forces to be able to legally and efficiently do their jobs. But with great power comes great responsibility. The same human rights which empower a State must be used to prevent it from going too far.

Human Rights and SOE SHOULD COEXIST

This article is, therefore, not about stopping SOEs or saying that they can never be fairly used by the Government but about challenging the idea that their use cannot be questioned, scrutinised and reviewed. It is about reminding society that we don’t have to make the choice between respecting human rights and conducting SOEs. The Constitution already tells us both can, and should, coexist.

Pundits across social and traditional media often ignore human-rights standards (largely because they seem to not understand them) in favour of stringent measures to address security issues. Within security studies, the process of deciding what is a security issue, how serious it is, and how the society should respond to it by the use of speech (or written communication) is called securitisation.

Through this process of securitisation, the powerful actors (usually government or security experts) not only say who or what is a threat, but decide for the public what is the best way to handle this threat, oftentimes deciding that only they know how to handle said threats and that if the threat is not handled their way, the damage would be irremediable.

To apply this to the Jamaican crime context, we have allowed our current Government and the head of the security forces – through a mixture of scare tactics and statistics of falling murder rates – to securitise the crime situation and tell us that only SOEs work. Media practitioners, particularly those with limited to no legal knowledge and the little privilege their careers offer them, have jumped on this bandwagon and decided that any human-rights critique of SOEs, rather than being part of government accountability, represent a bothersome attempt to derail plans to address crime.

It is quite unfortunate that those who benefit so much from the rights secured in Jamaica, particularly the freedom of the press; those who readily use rights arguments to defend their ability to say even the most poorly researched and badly framed opinions; and those who used rights arguments in their submission to Parliament on the Data Protection Act, would have become so forgetful or so swept up in the securitising narrative to label healthy criticism as an attack by “Human Rights Twitter”.

It would behove more and more media practitioners, since Government oversight is their bread and butter, to follow some of their erstwhile colleagues and study the law more closely before offering ‘what’s on their mind’. It is critical that a body who acts as the interface between the public and the Government familiarise themselves with all the rights that members of the public have and are due respect for. It would help them to not have the attitude of deference to security forces and see securitisation for what it is: an attempt to avoid accountability and to silence opposing voices.

Maybe then they would be less dismissive when the public defender produces a report on the conduct of SOEs. Maybe then they would take more seriously the inherent danger in the Government using SOEs to arrest and release without charge Jamaican citizens but keeping their private data.

Maybe such media practitioners would understand that the presumption of innocence and the right to privacy mean that this measure cannot stand unless the Government shows it is justifiable, not by mere theoretical conversation but actual evidence.

Human rights are so easy to take for granted when you are privileged and become so meaningless when you are not and have become accustomed to state abuse. It is for those of us who know better to do better, and for those who do not know better to listen to those who do and take the time to educate ourselves. If we do not do this, we shall continue on this slow but sure march to becoming a police state.

- Glenroy Murray is associate director of programmes and advocacy at Equality for All Foundation Jamaica Ltd. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and glenroy.am.murray@gmail.com.