Paulette Wellington was not at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva last week. She was not there to hear the government of Jamaica describe how it had improved its human rights situation or how the number of police fatalities had finally trended downward. Instead Paulette remained at home, waiting. She has been waiting for five years for answers about how her son ended up dead at the hands of the police.
In May 2010, around 30 law enforcement officers entered Sheldon Gary Davis’ home in Denham Town, West Kingston, where he lived with his family. There was an on-going state of emergency as security forces worked to arrest gang leader Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke from his West Kingston stronghold.
Sheldon’s mother, Paulette, explained to Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) and Amnesty International how security forces interrogated and abducted her 18-year-old son. Sheldon was accused of involvement in gang violence, which he denied. He had a permanent limp, resulting from a childhood illness; as such he spent little time outside. The security forces claimed that his limp was likely due to a gunshot wound – evidence of involvement in violence during the state of emergency.
They took him into custody, detained him in a blood-bank building nearby and killed him. The officers claim it was necessary, that he had attempted to grab a soldier’s gun. Paulette last saw her son when he was being taken away. She searched desperately for him for four days before finally receiving confirmation that he had been killed.
Five long years have passed since that terrible day. Five years during which Paulette has been left without an answer to her legitimate questions about her son’s brutal killing, five years without a thorough and independent investigation. Five years without justice.
Jamaica’s human rights record reviewed
Last week Jamaica defended its human rights record at the United Nations (UN). A delegation outlined its achievements during the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. In 2010 when the UN first reviewed Jamaica’s human rights record for the UPR, the country’s crime situation was one of the worst in the world: 1,442 homicides were recorded during that year and at least 310 people killed by the security forces.
Improvements and the importance of advocacy
Since then, important progress has been made. Jamaica could report last Wednesday that both homicides and police killings have significantly decreased: 129 security forces related-fatalities in 2014 – a 50% decrease – and 1,005 murders. The number of persons in police custody has decreased by 25%, resulting in a 50% system-wide reduction in overcapacity, and the number of juveniles in correctional or remand facilities dropped 42%.
The slow, yet encouraging improvements in Jamaica have been facilitated by robust advocacy of human rights organizations and adoption of at least some of the recommendations of human rights bodies. The government itself attributes the plunge in police fatalities to the creation of INDECOM, an independent police oversight body, in 2010. INDECOM’s creation was the fruit of years of human rights advocacy. It has begun to slowly shift the paradigm of policing from one of open abuse and impunity to increased accountability and transparency.
Nevertheless, while police killings have significantly reduced in recent months, impunity for the long history of past police abuses, including extrajudicial executions, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention largely prevails until today. For many victims and their families, justice has been denied.
Justice remains elusive due to failures in the justice system. For example, where the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) does not prosecute in a police fatal shooting, a Coroner’s Court inquest is the next option, but that court is overburdened. In 2014, the Special Coroner had a backlog of over 400 cases, with over 80 new cases yearly, but a capacity to complete only about 60 cases per year. Moreover, persons before the court do not qualify for Legal Aid. As such, NGOs like JFJ fill the gap by providing legal support free of charge.
Jamaica’s delegation reported on Wednesday that justice reform policies were implemented, and that “Several projects and programmes have been developed to ensure speedy and fair trials and improve the delivery of justice by the courts.” However, progress in policies has not translated into meaningful implementation, which is the persistent problem.
When Jamaica returns to Geneva in five years, it must not only report lower police killings, but also demonstrate that all victims of police abuses, and their families, can access justice and receive full reparation. Let’s hope that five years from now, Paulette Wellington, and all the other victims of the violations committed during the 2010 state of emergency, will be able to say that justice has prevailed.
 Statistics compiled by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes. In 2010 the homicide rate in Jamaica was calculated at 52,6 for 100,000 inhabitants, the third highest in the world after Honduras and El Salvador. The World Health Organization considered “epidemic level” when homicide rate is higher than 10 for 100,000 inhabitants.