President Obama's visit to Jamaica presented a good opportunity for him to discuss Jamaica's human rights record, including the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, during bilateral talks with the prime minister.
When gay-rights activists disrupted a speech by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller in New York on March 26, she retorted: "Nobody ever hears the Government of Jamaica beating up gays. Not one."
Sadly, this is only partially true.
Human Rights Watch has written two reports on violence against LGBT Jamaicans in the last 10 years.
The first, from 2004, Hated to Death, showed that abuse by police was rife and "a fact of life" for many LGBT Jamaicans in all communities where Human Rights Watch conducted research. At the time, and despite strong evidence to the contrary, police were reluctant to acknowledge homophobic hate crimes, which they characterised as "crimes of passion". The senior superintendent at the Kingston police station told Human Rights Watch: "We never have any cases of gay men being beaten up."
Ten years later, the second report, Not Safe At Home, showed that the Jamaican Government had taken some steps to address this intolerable situation.
In 2011, the Jamaican Constabulary Force introduced a Policy on Diversity, developed in consultation with the Jamaican advocacy group J-FLAG. The policy is designed to ensure that vulnerable groups, including LGBT people, can safely file police reports. The Ministry of National Security has also developed tools to monitor instances of crime, including provisions for disaggregated data on violence against LGBT people.
These are good initiatives, but they have not worked well in practice.
Here is the evidence: More than half of the 71 LGBT people interviewed for the 2014 report had experienced some form of violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Nineteen reported the crimes to the police, who took formal statements in only eight cases. Victims were aware of arrests by police in only four of the 56 cases of violence documented by Human Rights Watch. The Government does not need to "beat up gays" to fail them.
While the Jamaican Government has shown a willingness to acknowledge the violence, more can, and should, be done.
The prime minister and other leaders should consistently condemn violence and discrimination. Police should undertake rigorous investigations into all allegations of anti-LGBT hate crimes, improve monitoring of the Policy on Diversity, and strengthen police training on LGBT rights. Jamaica's 1864 buggery law gives social sanction to hostility and discrimination and should be repealed.
Justice Minister Mark Golding has acknowledged the need for targeted anti-discrimination legislation to address violations against certain groups in society. Such legislation, inclusive of LGBT people, would be a clear signal that discrimination has no place in Jamaica. Parliament should strike down all discriminatory laws and replace them with laws that protect Jamaicans from discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Yesterday, President Obama co-chaired a meeting of CARICOM heads of government in Jamaica, ahead of the Summit of the Americas in Panama. He will hold bilateral discussions on matters of mutual interest with Prime Minister Simpson Miller. The spokesperson for the National Security Council, Ned Price, has reportedly said: "We are committed to advancing human rights for all, including LGBT individuals. Indeed, we routinely raise issues of anti-LGBT discrimination and violence with foreign counterparts, including the Jamaican Government."
While the White House has declined to say whether Obama will talk about the rights of LGBT people on this visit, this will be a good opportunity to do so. Under Portia Simpson Miller's watch, this should be an entirely uncontroversial topic and one that does not need to be tiptoed around.