Jamaican activist Carolyn
Gomes was awarded the
2008 United Nations
Human Rights Prize
in December for her
crusade against extra-
judicial killings. Gomes,
a former pediatrician
who founded Jamaicans
for Justice a decade ago,
talks to AQ about why her
country has one of the
world’s highest rates of
gang murders and police-
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
AQ: Why have human rights
been equated with criminal rights
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
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.