December 10, is observed as International Human Rights Day 2008. This year’s commemoration is an important milestone as it marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), under the theme “Dignity and justice for all of us.” On this historic occasion, States from every region of the world will join together to deliver a statement next week recognizing human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations General Assembly. The statement deals with human rights abuses, directed against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including violence, criminal sanctions, torture, threats against human rights defenders and discrimination in accessing economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health. This joint statement will affirm that human rights truly are the birthright of all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Over the past year alone, the region has made significant strides in advancing the Inter-American human rights system to respond to violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. On June 3, 2008, the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States adopted Resolution AG/RES. 2435 (XXXVIII-O/08) on “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity” with the consensus of member states. On October 24, 2008, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) held a thematic hearing on “Discrimination based on Gender, Race and Sexual Orientation in the Americas” - for the first time in its history - in its 133rd Period of Sessions where SASOD Co-Chairperson, Joel Simpson, presented on the impact of laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy between consenting adults in private intersecting with socio-economic and cultural conditions in the context of the English-speaking Caribbean. Just last week, December 1 – 5, 2008, IACHR visited Jamaica to observe the human rights situation in the country, at the invitation of the government, and included focus on persons suffering discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, strongly condemning homophobia in its preliminary observations.
These progressive developments at the regional level have taken place against a backdrop of human rights violations escalating in our own country: the state is accused of torture; sexual and gender-based violence have reached pandemic proportions; while wanton violence, triggered in part by socio-economic disadvantage, threatens every citizen’s security; among other abuses. Even in a local context of such widespread violence, we, as a nation, still have not learnt that until all of us are protected, none of us are. How can we expect our youth not to nurture violence in a system that retains corporal punishment under the Education Act as a form of ‘disciplining’ children? When will we liberate our country from that destructive ethos of our colonial past?
The situation of human rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity at home is no better either. Over the last two weeks alone, there has been an unprecedented spate, perhaps, of murders targeting persons thought to be of a different sexual orientation, whether real or perceived, in circumstances which suggest that homophobia maybe the primary motive. What is even more troubling is that vital information, which could bring the perpetrators to justice, is not reaching the police because of lack of confidence and fear that some law-enforcement officers may hold similar anti-gay prejudices which may be at the root of the recent killings. A lot more gender-sensitivity work with the police needs to be done to inspire confidence among stigmatized groups, victims of violence and the general public.
Even amidst public outcries, violence continues to escalate in our society and we, as a country, must ask ourselves why. Our analysis should lead us to examine whether there are cultural factors which endorse violence and, undeniably, we will find aspects of our popular culture which glorify violence. While the government has taken a stand, although after the fact, by banning ‘Bounty Killa’ and ‘Movado’ because of their pro-violent lyrics, and should be commended, is enough really being done to prevent and curb the proliferation of such dangerous lyrics in our society? One need only live in the country to know that these insidious lyrics denigrate public spaces and airwaves: from transportation to bus parks; from live shows to other entertainment events; in restaurants, pubs, bars, clubs and on television. We must also question whether it is sufficient to simply block out words in a context where the intended meaning is obvious, as seems to be the practice in sections of the broadcast media.
The state of our society today implores us to urgently reflect on these issues as we take stock, 60 years after the signing of the UDHR. Government, state managers and policy makers alike, must confront these challenges if we, as a country, are to live up to the aspiration on which this universal value system is premised. Article 1 of the UDHR says it best: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…”