(New York) - Jamaica's leaders should condemn the comments of a governing-party member of parliament who called for gay organizations to be outlawed and demanded life imprisonment for homosexual conduct, Human Rights Watch said today in a Letter to Prime Minister Bruce Golding. Citing endemic violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Jamaica, Human Rights Watch urged the government to repeal the colonial-era law against "buggery" and publicly affirm equality before the law.
During a parliamentary debate on February 10, 2009, Ernest Smith of the Jamaica Labor Party said that "homosexual activities seem to have overtaken this country." He described homosexuals as "abusive, violent," and called for tightening the "buggery" law criminalizing consensual homosexual conduct to impose sentences of up to life in prison. On February 16, Smith told a Jamaican newspaper that J-FLAG, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, "should be outlawed," adding: "How can you legitimize an organization that is formed for the purposes of committing criminal offenses?"
"The prime minister should unequivocally condemn public figures who call for denying people their human rights," said Rebecca Schleifer, advocate for the Health and Human Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "In a climate of violence where homophobia puts LGBT people's lives at risk, spewing such hatred is inexcusable."
In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented extensive violence faced by LGBT people across Jamaica. This includes mob attacks in which gay men have been seriously wounded. In January 2008, for example, a mob attacked four men in Mandeville, surrounding their home and demanding they leave the community because they were gay. The mob slashed the inhabitants with sticks, stones, knives, and machetes.
That attack echoed another in the same town on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007, when a crowd of about 100 men gathered outside a church where 150 people were attending the funeral of a gay man. The crowd broke the windows with bottles and threatened to kill the mourners. Police were called to the scene, but refused to intervene. Officers stopped gay men from leaving and searched their vehicles, but did not restrain or detain members of the mob who threatened mourners with sticks, stones, and batons as they tried to escape.
Earlier that week, on April 2, 2007, a crowd in Montego Bay attacked three men alleged to be gay who were attending a carnival. Witnesses said the crowd chased the men down the street, slashed one man with knives and beat him with a manhole cover. According to local press reports, at least 30-40 people beat another man as he sought refuge in a bar, tearing his clothes from him and striking him as he bled severely from a head wound.
On February 14, 2007, a mob of at least 200 in Kingston surrounded and attacked four men, including J-FLAG's co-chair, calling for the men to be beaten to death because they were gay. When police arrived, instead of protecting the victims, the officers verbally abused them and struck one in the face, head, and stomach.
Human Rights Watch wrote twice to Prime Minister Golding about the 2008 Mandeville incident. In April 2008, it urged the prime minister to "express your condemnation of homophobic violence publicly," adding: "We also hope that your response to such violence will begin a dialogue with human rights groups working to end homophobic violence and abuse in Jamaica and strengthen efforts to protect all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jamaicans against further such violence and abuse." However, Golding has not publicly spoken to defend LGBT people's human rights.
In its letter today, Human Rights Watch pointed to Smith's call to ban an LGBT group as evidence of the dangerous effects of so-called "sodomy" laws like Jamaica's, a legacy of British colonial rule, on democratic freedoms. The UN Human Rights Committee, which authoritatively interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), found in the 1994 case of Toonen v. Australia that such laws violate covenant protections for privacy and against discrimination. Jamaica ratified the covenant in 1975.
Jamaica's Constitution and the covenant both affirm the right to freedom of association. The special representative of the UN secretary-general on human rights defenders has specifically pointed to "those who defend the rights of ...lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons" as "defenders who are at particular risk."
"Jamaica's buggery law not only justifies hate and provides a legal basis for repression," said Schleifer. "Smith's remarks show how such laws can be used to threaten freedoms of association and expression, as well as the work of human rights defenders."