Bob Thomson, Ottawa, December 1986

This paper examines the historical roots of human rights abuses in the Commonwealth Caribbean, the current human rights situation and the negative impact of recent externally sponsored militarization on human rights.

In comparison with Central America and other parts of the Third World, the population of most of the Commonwealth Caribbean cannot be said to suffer from extreme abuses of human rights. That having been said, it cannot also be noted that the Caribbean is bereft of problems.  In fact, the region is rapidly heading down an unstable path where human rights abuses are much more common in all countries.

The human rights problems of the Caribbean are closely linked to the political and socio-economic situation of the region.  With less severe income disparities than Central America, social tensions in the Commonwealth Caribbean tend to be played out through manipulation rather than cohersion, with civil rights abuses being the norm, as opposed to gross violations of human rights. In Jamaica and Guyana however, police violence, either sponsored or tolerated by these governments, is a serious human rights concern.

The social tensions which give rise to the abuse of rights in the Caribbean have their roots in a history of colonial development which prevented the formation of distinct social classes with their own independent economic bases.  One result of this history has been political fragmentation and the creation of delicate class alliances and balances with considerable potential for instability.  Neither workers, nor peasants nor local business have had the leeway to accumulate control over labour, land or capital independent of the metropolitan centres which controlled and still dominate their societies. With no independent class having sufficient economic clout to control the social structure to its own benefit, the state, with its powers of taxation, regulation, policing, patronage and many other mechanisms, plays a major role in promoting and mediating conflicting interests.

The majority of the Caribbean's population is rural and, struggling for survival, currently lacks the unity and political clout to play much of a role in national politics. (1)  The middle class and local business, while numerically a minority, have traditionally dominated the political scene, having been favoured by the colonial authorities to inherit political control after a suitable period of "training". They have been unable to accumulate significant economic power of their own however, due to the nature of unequal economic relations which continue to exist with the former colonial powers.

The fragmentation of interest groups and the lack of an independent economic base, even within the middle class are a major source of instability.  The relative ease with which changes in control of the state can be commanded through even minor military power or political manipulation is exemplified by the March 1979 and September/October 1983 events in Grenada and the June 1979 "constitutional coup" in Dominica.

The existence of a Westminister parliamentary model in most of the region has obscured these realities to many Canadian observers.  An extremely repressive system with its roots in slavery held sway until only a few decades ago, when a universal franchise and political (if not economic) independence slowly began to force a transfer of power to the Caribbean middle classes.  Executive authority in most Caribbean parliaments is far greater than in Canada or the U.K. due to the absence of a vibrant press and the inheritance of a political culture that looks to the "big man" for protection and guidance from a repressive system. The lack of accountability and the nature of the political culture also explain to a considerable degree the abuse of authority and outright corruption so prevalent in Caribbean politics. (2)

It is not uncommon for Parliaments to sit irregularly and to "debate" important legislation and budgets in one day, with no previous circulation of material for study or analysis.  Local radio stations and television are normally state controlled and opposition voices are rarely given adequate access to criticize or advance alternatives.  Some governments have even refused to allow the live broadcast of Parliamentary debates so as to deny opposition access to the media.  The regional media is exceedingly weak and governments have encouraged this by allowing the unfettered entry of foreign commercial programming via satellite and the rebroadcast of American religious radio stations. (3)

Parliament as an institution to mediate conflicting interests leaves much to be desired in a setting where the state holds most of the economic cards and where there are few independent resources to counter those who hold state power.  The equation of democracy with parliaments and regular elections ignores the complex network of institutions, economic relations, culture, ideology, class perceptions, race, and other manifestations of power in modern Caribbean social systems.

In this context of fragmentation and vulnerability, the Westminister system has not been immune from abuse.  It does however provide a potentially non-violent forum for the mediation of many competing interests within an increasingly complex social system. It has also semi-institutionalized democratic traditions which, although weak and vulnerable, provide a basis of experience and popular support for democracy which does not exist in areas with no such history, such as Central America.  However, it is common for external observers, including Canada's Department of External Affairs, to ignore the complex network of formal and informal relations of political power as well as numberous examples of abuse of the "formal" system. (4)  They confuse the trappings of democracy for the real thing in practice all too easily.

Superimposed on the growing complexity of the social structure and the strains which that complexity creates for the mediation of conflict within existing political systems, a new element of instability has been introduced to the region in a major way by the U.S. invasion of Grenada in October, 1983.  In equiping and training the police and in creating new Special Service Units and defence forces in the region in the wake of the invasion, the U.S. has greatly increased the likelihood that force, rather than politics, will be used to resolve conflict in the future. Militarism has raised its ugly head in the Region to a degree unprecedented in its history.

U.S. assistance to the Region has increased considerably in the past several years since the invasion.  However the military portion of total U.S. foreign aid has grown from 22% in 1980 to 37% in 1986 and is expected to climb to 46% in 1987. (5) Thus U.S. "assistance" is likely to be increasingly oriented to the Region's security services.  One result is that Caribbean governments will soon find themselves with greater recurrent budget expenditures to maintain and operate non-productive security forces and systems which do not meet the real security needs of the Region or even each individual territory.

A further risk is that, just as minority shareholders have their means of controlling corporate decisions, security considerations have a way of becoming the dominant rationale and/or preoccupation for government spending.  One only needs to look at the impact of the doctrine of national security throughout Latin America in the 1960's and 1970's to see the potential results for the Caribbean's small economies.  This process includes: diversion of resources from social to military expenditures; expansion of state security services; enhanced weight of the military in developing and articulating state policy; the penetration of traditionally civil spheres of government (eg. the police, customs, immigration, etc.) by the military or their organization along military lines; a growing resort to force as a means of buttressing the dominant position of those in power; revision of the legal framework to respond to security interests or viewpoints; and the promotion of military forms of organization in civil society. (6)

While these various manifestations of the national security doctrine may not yet be present in all territories of the Caribbean, they are trends which are readily recognizable in the Region as a whole.  They are reinforced by U.S. military assistance programmes, by the presence of American military bases and forces in the Region and by "joint" military manoevres in the Caribbean. The fact that they have created havoc in Latin America and that the national security doctrine has been abandoned in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and the Philippines and is on the way out in Chile and Haiti should be sufficient warning to those Regional leaders who seem bent on promoting these new values.

It is not necessary to look only to Latin America for examples of the inevitable results of abuses a national security mentality.  While current U.S. programmes are the major stimulus to Caribbean militarization, it would be irresponsible not to also recognize the misuse and abuse of military power in Grenada under the NJM.  Granted that a defensive military buildup was produced by American pressures, the eventual use of force to try to resolve internal party differences was an obvious disaster for reasons which are not related to the U.S. intervention.  This experience provides many lessons which cannot be ignored and should not be confused with support for one or the other "surviving" NJM factions.  The overall context of militarization and the dangers inherent in the existence and therefore potential use of force, whether it originates from offensive or defensive situations, must be analysed objectively and not merely as arguments for or against one or another political position.

Already, police violence is a serious problem in the Commonwealth Caribbean.  In Jamaica in 1985, the Jamaica Human Rights Association reported over 280 killings by the police which had not been the subject of official investigations as required by law. (7)  In May 1986, 48 people died violently, 30 being shot, including 9 by the police. (8)  A Jamaican judge noted in 1984 that "One of the tragedies of our times is the fact that it seems that no Circuit Court sitting is complete unless there is a peace officer before the court on a charge of violence." (9)

Americas Watch has recommended the suspension of U.S. police aid to Jamaica as the result of its recent study.  (10) The study accuses Jamaican police of serious human rights violations and in particular the prevalence of a practice of summary executions by police; unlawful detentions often accompanied by police assaults on the detainees; and the confinement of detainees in police lockups under squalid and degrading conditions.

Americas Watch discounts the prevailing "wisdom" that Jamaica's violent political culture lies at the root of police violence. Their report notes that in many, if not most police slayings which they investigated, the victims were not armed when they were shot.  Further, the number of police deaths and injuries is not consistent with police explanations of frequent "shoot-outs" with criminal elements and the number of police homicides is disproportionate to the level of criminal violence, including non-police murders, when compared with crime levels in Jamaica and in major American cities. (11)

Nor is Jamaica the only territory where police violence exists.  Eighty three persons were shot dead by the police in Guyana between 1981 and 1986. (12) The Guyana Human Rights Association has also documented a great deal of evidence of police brutality and torture being used to extract confessions and intimidate witnesses. The GHRA further notes: "Of the many acts of violence against members of the public, a large number of which resulted in death, no police officer has been successfully prosecuted before the courts. In view of the high incidence of police violence, this record of prosecutions is not credible." (13) They also report occasional notorious incidents of corruption within the police force in matters arising from the high level of contraband activity.

In Dominica in 1981, the Dominica Liberation Alliance reported 13 police slayings to Amnesty International, including one which led to charges against the officers involved only after several years of internal and international pressure. (14) Members of the Dominica Special Service Units trained by the Green Berets have refused to take orders from senior police officers and tension exists between "the men in green and the men in blue." (15) An attempted coup by members of the Dominica Defense Force in 1981 reinforces these fears of militarization of the police. (16)

In St. Lucia, the opposition press has expressed concern that U.S. military training has displaced criminal investigation and good police methods. (17)  In Grenada, between October 1983 and October 1986, some 200 policemen have been found guilty of breaching their disciplinary code. (18)  Grenada's Special Service Unit was used in 1985 by a local politician to arrest the owner of a radio station, one of his opponents, and to seize its equipment. (19)  In 1979, Vincentian police, at the time of a Rastafarian led rebellion on tiny Union island, removed supposedly "subversive" literature from the library of a "mainland" rural group which had nothing to do with the Union Island group. (20)

A Barbadian policeman on the island to replace Vincentian police sent to Union Island was present at the seizure of literature in the incident mentioned above, raising serious questions about regional defense co-operation in the repression and harrassment of legitimate internal dissent rather than bonafide security threats.  However, with the election of new governments in Barbados and St. Vincent opposed to the upgrading of the Regional security force agreement to treaty level, there are grounds for hope that U.S. military influence can be contained.

Nor is police abuse the only example of human rights violations in the region.  The Commonwealth Caribbean does not suffer from the prolonged violent abuse of human rights so familiar in Central America today, but there are examples of political killings, torture, restriction of the freedoms of assembly, the press and movement, manipulation of the judiciary and other abuses of rights and the rule of law which merit our attention.

In Dominica, the government restricts opposition access to the radio station and has even extended its Cabinet vetos as low as the appointment of agricultural show judges in an effort to reduce opposition exposure to the public. (21) In Antigua, the government has used its legislative power on several occasions to stop the opposition press from registering as legal entities and has pressed spurious legal action a number of times to silence its critics. (22) In 1985, the Government of Antigua detained a Canadian diplomat for questioning after he visited the offices of a local opposition party. (23)  Most Commonwealth Caribbean governments have recently reinstituted capital punishment and in some cases, have even built permanent concrete gallows as warnings of their intentions to get tough with "criminal" elements.

In Grenada, overwhelming U.S. pressure has manifested itself in the dissemination of anti-opposition propaganda by a U.S. military psychological operations team, restrictions on travel by opposition leaders and the introduction of hard drugs and prostitution on an unprecedented scale. (24)

Lengthy delays prejudiced the fair trial of New Jewel Movement members accused of murdering Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. (25) The jury was empanelled from a selection of citizens openly hostile to the defendants.  One jury member is a relative of one of the victims and jury members regularly join the public gallery in heckling the defendants. (26) Evidence has been admitted in the trial which the defendants claim was extracted by torture and they have been denied access to important evidence removed from the island by U.S. occupation forces in 1983. (27)

Despite these obvious abuses of the rule of law, the accused were convicted and sentenced to hang in November 1986. While one can appreciate considerable antipathy towards the fate of the accused because of the results of their political actions in 1983, the trial was such a mockery of justice that the rule of law will be completely undermined if these sentences are carried out.

In Montserrat, the Government has presented a Public Order Act requiring police approval for all public gatherings except funerals in the wake of church demonstrations against the deportation of a popular priest. (28) In another example of political paranoia, a number of regional leaders have accused opposition groups of association with terrorism through the circulation of a document on Libyan contacts in the Caribbean, apparently prepared by the U.S. State Department in the wake of the U.S. bombing of Libya. (29)  Freedom of movement of opposition political figures and even the general population is restricted in a number of territories through the removal of passports, harrassment at the points of departure and arrival and the imposition of onerous taxes on airfares and foreign exchange purchases.

In Jamaica, the ruling JLP of Edward Seaga holds all seats in Parliament since Michael Manley's PNP refused to contest the December 1983 snap election.  The election had been called in violation of a JLP/PNP agreement on the revision of electoral lists.  Despite its substantial defeat in the July 1986 Local Government elections, the JLP has refused to call general elections despite demands from the Chamber of Commerce, the Employers Federation, the Churches, unions  and many other bodies. These groups fear that a one party Parliament does not have the necessary popular mandate to tackle Jamaica's serious economic and social problems. (30)

Following his 1980 election victory, Seaga removed the Board of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation and refused the application for an independant television channel by the Gleaner newspaper. (31) He has stated to the press that the PNP may well win the next elections and control the Parliament, but that he will control the streets. (32)  Many observers see this as a threat to reintroduce the political violence  which resulted in over 800 dead in the 1980 election campaign. (33)  One commentator noted that the rapid growth of private security firms,  the largest headed by one of Seaga's bodyguards, amounted to preparation  for a confrontation with the security forces which voted overwhelmingly  for the PNP in the July 1986 local government elections. (34)

Further evidence of the government of Jamaica's lack of respect for its own laws can be found in its recent efforts to impose millions of dollars in taxes on the island's drug trafficers while accepting U.S. assistance to destroy the considerable marijuana crop. (35)

In Guyana, the worst violator of human rights in the region, what has frequently been called a "constitutional dictatorship" exists. The Constitution of 1980 gives the Executive President considerable powers of appointment and control of the state which dominates some 80% of the economy and at least 50% of employment in the country.  Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department cite charges of torture, political killings, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, denial of fair public trial, invasion of the home, restrictions of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and travel, and denial of basic needs/rights through political favouritism in food distribution, employment, housing, education and other government services. (36)

The July 1985-August 1986 Annual Report of the Guyana Human Rights Association notes that "the past year has witnessed fraudulent elections, intolerance of criticism, attacks on organized religion, the reintroduction of the death penalty, a continued high level of police brutality, neglect of Amerindians and extensive shortages of basic foods and drugs." (37)  While pointing to a number of hopeful signs under the new Hoyte regime, such as the loosening of restrictions on the opposition press and the reimportation of wheat flour after five years of widespread nutritional defficiency, the Association notes that it "is forced to reserve any over-all judgement on its human rights performance to date." (38)

In Guyana, the GHRA notes that standards of justice continue to deteriorate due to inadequate funds, untrained staff, emigration of judges and magistrates, low judicial standards and corruption. Numerous trial postponements, political interference in sentencing, loss of case jackets, delays in handing down written judgements and many other hardships face those who look to the courts for redress. (39)  Guyana's "constitutional dictatorship", while formally providing for the protection of rights, is manifestly unable to do so in practice.

The government's development plans this past year have included the courting of investments from yet another fugitive from American justice, while members of the ruling PNC are profiting from their monopoly control of U.S. Public Law 480 wheat sales. (40) The Deputy Prime Minister was removed from the Cabinet in September 1986 following charges of attempted rape of the daughter of a prominent Guyanese businessman. (41) The government has yet to respond to requests from the widow and mother of the WPA leader Walter Rodney for an independent inquiry into his assasination in 1980. (42)

It is ironic that President Hoyte is now being courted by western governments despite his long history as one of Burnham's chief Ministers and in particular, the Minister responsible for the Guyanese economy throughout its headlong plunge into inefficiency and corruption over the past decade. Again, we are reminded that our government officials prefer the trappings of democratic institutions rather than a far more complex reality when they analyse our relations with the Commonwealth Caribbean.

This brief description of the human rights situation in the Caribbean portrays a situation of serious civil rights infractions and human rights violations sufficient to cause concern for the future of democracy in the region.  The situation does not compare with the violence and history of abuse in Central America, but is nevertheless far more disquieting than we are led to believe by the little news Canadians see trickling out of the tourist havens of the english-speaking Caribbean.

The Americas Watch report cited earlier noted that "while the authorities have technically adequate legal and administrative means to reduce killing, they do not really want to put a stop to it." (43)  In the context of a relatively free society with institutions capable of protecting human rights, one can only agree with their conclusion that there is a lack of government determination to put a stop to abuses.  Police lawlessness and governments' tacit acceptance of it encourages lawless violence by citizens, disrespect for the rule of law and the further erosion of human rights protections. As noted earlier, this phenomenon is not unique to Jamaica in the Caribbean .

The strengthening of the police in most Caribbean territories by U.S. sponsored military training, combined with increasing economic deterioration in the Commonwealth Caribbean, lays down conditions under which social unrest resulting from unemployment will likely be put down violently rather than resolved through the creation of jobs and equal opportunities for the entire population. Protections for the rights of the majority are being steadily weakened in the face of increasingly repressive manipulations by a minority which controls the state, the media, the political process and the Caribbean's export/import economy.

Canada, acting through the Department of External Affairs, in U.N. fora and through academic and non-governmental organizations, could play an important role in preventing this slide toward human rights abuse.  By studying these trends, educating the public and encouraging our government to acknowledge this new Caribbean reality, Canadians can discourage further abuse and encourage positive measures to reverse these trends.

        While far from comprehensive, some measures which could be encouraged are:

1) the establishment and funding of a Caribbean human rights tribunal to foster regional monitoring and the judicial resolution of rights problems;

2) encouragement of diplomatic and political measures to establish the Caribbean as a nuclear free zone of peace;

3) the provision of economic aid which encourages local and regional self-reliance in food production rather than unequal trade in export crops;

4) strengthening of an independent local and regional media;

5) encourage Parliamentary accountability;

6) reinforcement of mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution and creation of a climate of respect for the law rather than stronger police powers.

7) support current research on militarization and development in the Region by ISER/UWI;

8) provide financial, political and moral support for the recently established regional peace organization by Canadian NGO's;

9) encourage the Canadian government to refrain from participation in NATO or other military manoevres in the Caribbean;

Notes re Author

Bob Thomson is an Ottawa based consultant working for Canadian NGO's in project evaluations and research.  After representing CUSO in the Caribbean from 1976 to 1979, he did his M.A. thesis on "The Potential and Limits of Agricultural Self-Reliance in Grenada" in International Affairs at Carleton University. He has completed studies of the Caribbean banana industry, Canada's trade and aid relations with Nicaragua and most recently, a review of Canadian foreign policy and human rights in the Commonwealth Caribbean.


1) A recent survey by Carl Stone, the respected Jamaican pollster, suggests that the majority of the population pays little attention to politicians or the political process. "Caribbean Contact", April 1986.

2) Just as prostitution and drugs follow the tourists, fraud follows the laundering of dirty money in offshore "banks" and the award of concessions to foreign and local business friends. The intricacies and depth of corruption in the Caribbean are well documented in "The Other Side of Paradise" by Tom Barry, Beth Wood and Deb Preusch, Grove Press, New York, 1984.

3) The Caribbean Conference of Churches and the Caribbean Publishing and Broadcasting Association recently called for action to control external influences in the regional media. "Caribbean Insight", London, October 1986, p.13.

4) Interviews by the author in April and May of 1986 with senior officials of Canada's Department of External Affairs responsible for Canadian policy in the Commonwealth Caribbean bear out this observation. One senior official was not even aware that there had been over 280 police homicides in Jamaica in 1984.

5) "Food First News", Issue No.26, Summer, 1986, Institute for Food and Development Policy, San Francisco, p.1.

6) Jorge Rodriguez Beruff, Rodriguez provided this outline of the characteristics of militarization in the region at Caribbean Regional Peace Conference in Kingston Jamaica, December 5-6, 1986.

7) Jamaica Human Rights Association, 1985 Annual Report, Kingston, 1986

8) "Caribbean Insight," July 1986.

9) Americas Watch, "Human Rights in Jamaica", Washington D.C., September 1986, p.30

10) Americas Watch, op.cit., p.4

11) Americas Watch, p.26. There were 280 police killings in 1984 in Jamaica, with a population of 2 million, vs 31 in New York City.

12) Guyana Human Rights Association, "Annual Report July 1985-August 1986", Georgetown, September 1986, p.11

13) ibid, p.12

14) Amnesty International, "1982 Annual Report," London: 1982.

15) Atherton Martin, "The Internal Impact of Militarization in Dominica", Paper presented in the Seminar on Threats to Peace in the Caribbean and Central America, Puerto Rico, October 4, 1984, cited in "Boots, Boots, Boots: Intervention, Regional Security and Militarization in the Caribbean 1979-1986", Humberto Garcia Muniz, Proyecto Caribeno de Justicia y Paz, p.15.

16) The Second in Command of the Dominica Defense Force was found guilty, together with former Prime Minister Patrick John, of attempting to overthrow the government in 1981. Boots, op. cit. p.26.

17) The Crusader, Castries, St. Lucia, Boots, op. cit. p.26.

18) Caribbean Insight, London, October 1986, p.9.

19) Caribbean Insight, London, August 1985, p.7.

20) Author's interview with the Vincentian group, Halifax, October 1984.

21) Author's interview with Dominican human rights activist, Ottawa, February 1986.

22) Caribbean Insight, London, August 1985, p.2. Tim Hector, Editor of "Outlet" which frequently exposes government corruption, was sentenced to six months jail for "undermining confidence in a government officer."  His case was thrown out on appeal to a higher court.

23) Caribbean Insight, London, September 1985, p.2.

24) Author's personal experience and interviews with several Grenadian human rights activists, Grenada, July 1986.

25) Caribbean Dialogue, October 1986

26) Caribbean Contact, Barbados, October 1986, p.4.

27) Caribbean Insight, London, September 1986.

28) Caribbean Contact, Barbados, November 1986, p.7.

29) Caribbean Contact, Barbados, May 1986

30) Author's interviews with the Jamaica Human Rights Association and a freelance writer and commentator, Kingston, August,  1986.

31) Author's interview with Horace Levy, Kingston, August 1986. The Jamaican television station, JTV, was blatently pro-JLP during the recent local government elections campaign according to a representative  of the Caribbean Conference of Churches based in Jamaica.

32) Interview with Jamaican freelance journalist and commentator, Kingston, Jamaica, August 1986.

33) Ibid

34) Interview with Jamaica Human Rights Association representative, Kingston, Jamaica, August 1986.

35) Amnesty International, "1982 Annual Report"; U.S. State Department, "Country Reports on human Rights Practices," Washington: US Government, February 1981; Latin America Bureau,"Guyana: Fraudulent Revolution," London: 1984.

36) Caribbean Insight, December 1986, p.6.

37) Caribbean Contact, Barbados, November 1986, p.16.

38) Caribbean Contact, Barbados, November 1986, p.16.

39) GHRA Annual Report 1986, p.30.

40) Telephone conversation with Guyanese human rights activist recently returned from Guyana, Toronto, September 1986.

41) Caribbean Contact, Barbados, November 1986, p.2.

42) Caribbean Contact, Barbados, November 1986, p.4.

43) Americas Watch, op.cit., p.3