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I.  Summary

On June 9, 2004, Brian Williamson, Jamaica’s leading gay rights activist, was murdered in his home, his body mutilated by multiple knife wounds.  Within an hour after his body was discovered, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed a crowd gathered outside the crime scene.  A smiling man called out, “Battyman [homosexual] he get killed!”  Many others celebrated Williamson’s murder, laughing and calling out, “let’s get them one at a time,” “that’s what you get for sin,” “let’s kill all of them.”  Some sang “boom bye bye,” a line from a popular Jamaican song about killing and burning gay men. 

Jamaica’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic is unfolding in the context of widespread violence and discrimination against people living with and at high risk of HIV/AIDS, especially men who have sex with men.  Myths about HIV/AIDS persist.  Many Jamaicans believe that HIV/AIDS is a disease of homosexuals and sex workers whose “moral impurity” makes them vulnerable to it, or that HIV is transmitted by casual contact.  Pervasive and virulent homophobia, coupled with fear of the disease, impedes access to HIV prevention information, condoms, and health care.

Violent acts against men who have sex with men are commonplace in Jamaica.  Verbal and physical violence, ranging from beatings to brutal armed attacks to murder, are widespread.  For many, there is no sanctuary from such abuse.  Men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women reported being driven from their homes and their towns by neighbors who threatened to kill them if they remained, forcing them to abandon their possessions and leaving many homeless.  The testimony of Vincent G., twenty-two, is typical of the accounts documented by Human Rights Watch: “I don’t live anywhere now. . . . Some guys in the area threatened me.  ‘Battyman, you have to leave.  If you don’t leave, we’ll kill you.’”1 

Victims of violence are often too scared to appeal to the police for protection.  In some cases the police themselves harass and attack men they perceived to be homosexual.   Police also actively support homophobic violence, fail to investigate complaints of abuse, and arrest and detain them based on their alleged homosexual conduct.  In some cases, homophobic police violence is a catalyst for violence and serious—sometimes lethal—abuse by others.  On June 18, 2004, a mob chased and reportedly “chopped, stabbed and stoned to death” a man perceived to be gay in Montego Bay.  Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police participated in the abuse that ultimately led to this mob killing, first beating the man with batons and then urging others to beat him because he was homosexual.

Because HIV/AIDS and homosexuality often are conflated, people living with HIV/AIDS and organizations providing HIV/AIDS education and services have also been targeted.  Both state and private actors join violent threats against gay men with threats against HIV/AIDS educators and people living with HIV/AIDS.  In July 2004, for example, the Jamaican Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) received an email threatening to gun down “gays and homosexuals” and “clean up” a group that provided HIV/AIDS education for youth.  In a 2003 case, a police officer told a person living with HIV/AIDS that he must be homosexual and threatened to kill him if he did not “move [his] AIDS self from here.” 

Discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica poses serious barriers to obtaining necessary medical care.  In interviews with people living with HIV/AIDS, Human Rights Watch found that health workers often mistreated people living with HIV/AIDS, providing inadequate care and sometimes denying treatment altogether.  Doctors failed to conduct adequate medical examinations of people living with HIV/AIDS, sometimes refusing even to touch them.  And, in some cases, lack of treatment in the initial stages made it even less likely that people living with HIV/AIDS would receive health care services at a later date.  Visible symptoms heightened the discrimination they faced, which in turn created further barriers to obtaining treatment.  People suffering from visible HIV-related symptoms were sometimes denied passage on public and private transportation, making it difficult to obtain any medical care at facilities beyond walking distance.

People living with HIV/AIDS said that health workers also routinely released confidential information to other patients and to members of the public, both through discriminatory practices that signaled patients’ HIV status (such as segregating HIV-positive patients from others) and by affirmative disclosure of such information.  Such actions violate fundamental rights to privacy and also drive people living with HIV away from services. 

Discrimination also spreads HIV/AIDS in Jamaica by discouraging at-risk individuals from seeking HIV-related information or health care.  Men who have sex with men reported that health workers had refused to treat them at all, made abusive comments to them, and disclosed their sexual orientation, putting them at risk of homophobic violence by others.  As a result, many men who have sex with men delayed or avoided seeking health care altogether, especially for health  problems that might mark them as homosexual, such as sexually transmitted diseases.  Because the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases heightens the risk of HIV transmission, such discrimination may have fatal consequences.

Jamaica is at a critical moment in its efforts to address a burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic.  An estimated 1.5 percent of Jamaicans are living with HIV/AIDS, and HIV/AIDS is on the increase.  Jamaica’s Ministry of Health has taken steps to combat discrimination against people living with and at high risk of HIV/AIDS (such as men who have sex with men and sex workers), which it has recognized as a key factor driving Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Its national HIV/AIDS program has fostered important relationships with nongovernmental organizations with established links to marginalized high-risk groups, provided support for their HIV/AIDS work with them, and looked to them for guidance in developing an effective response to the epidemic.  It also has provided HIV/AIDS training for health personnel addressing stigma and discrimination. 

But other parts of Jamaica’s government undermine these important efforts by condoning or committing serious human rights abuses.  Abuses against men who have sex with men take place in a climate of impunity fostered by Jamaica’s sodomy laws and are promoted at the highest levels of government.  Jamaican legal provisions that criminalize consensual sex between adult men are used to justify the arrest of peer HIV educators and to deny HIV prevention services to prisoners, among others.  High-level political leaders, including Prime Minister P.J. Patterson and Minister of Health John Junor, repeatedly refuse to endorse repeal of discriminatory legislation, ignoring not only international human rights standards but also reports by both the government’s national HIV/AIDS program and its advisory National AIDS Committee on the role of these laws in driving Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Jamaican health officials acknowledge that Jamaica’s sodomy laws make it difficult for them to work directly with men who have sex with men.  As one high-level health official told Human Rights Watch: “We don’t promote direct programs or services to MSM [men who have sex with men] as a group because the existing laws impede this work [and] because [of] the high-level of stigma and discrimination, they’re not open to getting services through the public sector.”  The police, however, actively impede government-supported peer HIV prevention efforts among men who have sex with men and also among sex workers.  AIDS outreach workers reported that the very possession of condoms—a key tool in HIV prevention—triggers police harassment, and in some cases, arrest and criminal charges.

Jamaica’s failure to take action to stop human rights abuses committed by state agents, to take measures to protect against abuses by state and private actors, and to ensure access to HIV/AIDS information and services to all Jamaicans violate its obligations as a state party to regional and international human rights treaties.

In 2004, Jamaica launched an ambitious project to provide antiretroviral treatment to people living with HIV/AIDS and to address underlying human rights violations that are driving the epidemic.  These are promising initiatives.  They will be compromised, however, unless government leaders make a sustained commitment to end discrimination and abuse against people living with and at high risk of HIV/AIDS.  The government knows that although HIV/AIDS is stigmatized as a “gay disease,” in reality, in Jamaica as in most of the Caribbean, the most common means of transmission is heterosexual sex.  It also knows that if the epidemic in Jamaica continues to accelerate, all Jamaicans will suffer.  This fact should encourage high-level Jamaican government officials to act quickly and forcefully to eliminate discriminatory laws and abusive practices that violate basic rights to equality, dignity, privacy, and health and undermine HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts.  This includes speaking out strongly and acting forcefully against homophobic violence and abusive treatment of homosexual men and women and of sex workers.  If the Jamaican government chooses instead to let popular prejudices continue to undermine its attempts to establish rights-based HIV/AIDS policies, the consequences for all Jamaicans will be dire.  Thousands of Jamaicans will be consigned to lives of horrific abuse and thousands will face premature and preventable death.

[1] Human Rights Watch interview with Vincent G., Kingston, June 14, 2004.

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