Jamaica’s political system is democratic, and features competitive elections and orderly rotations of power. However, corruption remains a serious problem, and long-standing relationships between officials and organized crime figures are thought to persist. Violent crime remains a concern, as does harassment and violence against LGBT+ people.
- In October, former education minister Ruel Reid was arrested and accused of corruption, fraud, and misappropriation of funds along with the president of publicly run Caribbean Maritime University (CMU). The cases against Reid, who lost his post over the allegations in March, and CMU’s president were ongoing at year’s end.
- The National Identification System (NIDS), introduced in 2017, was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in April for infringing on Jamaicans’ privacy. In November, Prime Minister Andrew Holness vowed to introduce revised legislation to relaunch NIDS in 2020.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The British monarch is the ceremonial head of state and is represented by a governor general. The prime minister is the head of government; the position is appointed after elections by the governor general, and usually goes to the leader of the majority party or coalition. The prime minister’s legitimacy rests largely on the conduct of legislative elections, which in Jamaica are generally free and fair. Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leader Holness became prime minister after the party’s narrow win in the 2016 election.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Jamaica’s bicameral Parliament consists of a 63-member House of Representatives, elected for five years, and a 21-member Senate, with 13 senators appointed on the advice of the prime minister and 8 on the advice of the opposition leader. Senators also serve five-year terms.
In 2016, the opposition JLP won 32 lower-house seats, in a narrow victory over the incumbent People’s National Party (PNP), which took 31. Organization of American States (OAS) monitors deemed the elections competitive and credible, but recorded instances of election-related violence ahead of the polls, and expressed concern about voter apathy, which was manifested in a historically low voter turnout of 48 percent.
In an April 2019 by-election, the ruling JLP won a lower-house seat in the northeastern parish of Portland from the PNP. Turnout stood at 53.7 percent, an improvement over the 43.9 percent figure in 2016.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Electoral laws are generally fair, but the 2016 OAS mission suggested various improvements, including strengthening campaign finance rules and making it easier for citizens to vote in areas outside their assigned polling station.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties form and operate without restriction. Although various smaller parties are active, politics at the national level are dominated by the social democratic PNP and the more conservative JLP.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Opposition parties operate freely, and political power has alternated between the PNP and JLP.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||2.002 4.004|
Powerful criminal organizations can influence voters who live in areas under their control. These organizations have used intimidation or other tactics to ensure high voter turnout for particular candidates or parties in exchange for political favors.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Women are underrepresented in politics. Of the 152 candidates contesting the 2016 election, 26 candidates, or 17.1 percent, were women. Eleven women were elected to the lower house in 2016, amounting to 17.5 percent of the body. The LGBT+ community experiences harassment and violence, and this impacts the ability of LGBT+ people to engage in political and electoral processes.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The elected prime minister and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government. However, powerful criminal groups, as well as corruption in politics, can affect democratic policymaking.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Long-standing links between officials and organized crime figures persist. Government bodies continue to pursue corruption investigations, and cases frequently end in convictions. However, there are criticisms in the media and from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that authorities are reluctant to pursue some cases. Government whistleblowers are not well protected.
New legal efforts to fight corruption have been mounted in recent years. These include the approval of the Integrity Commission Act of 2017, which requires lawmakers and public officials to disclose their income, liabilities, and assets; the act also streamlined anticorruption laws and empowered a single commission to monitor compliance. The Integrity Commission began its work in 2018. In May 2019, the Integrity Commission announced that it sent six investigative reports to Parliament and supervised 500 government projects in its first year of operation, but no prosecutions were launched.
Legislation approved in 2018 mandated the establishment of an independent Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA). This agency previously existed, but was affiliated with the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF); the current body is autonomous. In late 2018, MOCA arrested five JCF members, and three were later charged with extortion and breaches of the Corruption Prevention Act.
Major anticorruption investigations continued throughout 2019. In a July report to the Senate, the Integrity Commission warned that managers at oil refining firm Petrojam spent J$2.6 million ($19,700) on birthday parties, and that Petrojam was unable to justify major outlays. The report was forwarded to the director of corruption prosecution, and remained under review at year’s end. In September, MOCA accused two constables of corruption for allegedly soliciting a bribe; their cases remained pending at year’s end.
In October 2019, former education minister Ruel Reid, two relatives, and CMU president Fritz Pinnock were arrested on suspicion of corruption, fraud, and the misappropriation of as much a J$50 million ($380,000) in public funds for their personal use. While a parliamentary appropriations committee subsequently declined to launch new probes into the case, Pinnock and Reid, who was forced to vacate his post and his Senate seat in March as the allegations surfaced, remained in custody at year’s end.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
An access to information law has been in effect since 2004, though it contains a number of exemptions. Legislative processes are often opaque.
In 2018, the government resisted calls to allow the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament (PAC), which was chaired by an opposition lawmaker, to discuss an audit of Petrojam that showed evidence of serious corruption and mismanagement. The audit was published that December and concluded that Petrojam contracts violated procurement rules.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
The constitutional right to free expression is generally respected. Most newspapers are privately owned, and express a variety of views. Broadcast media are largely publicly owned, but espouse similarly pluralistic points of view. Journalists occasionally face intimidation, especially in the run up to elections.
In 2018, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed concern over a proposed data-protection bill it said failed to “adequately distinguish gathering ‘data’ for journalistic activities from gathering data for regular commercial purposes.” The group said the bill, if it became law, could allow authorities to compel journalists investigated under its provisions to reveal their sources. The bill was still under consideration at the end of 2019.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected and generally respected in practice. While laws banning Obeah—an Afro-Caribbean shamanistic religion—remain on the books, they are not actively enforced.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
The government does not restrict academic freedom.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals are generally free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics. However, the presence of powerful criminal groups in some urban neighborhoods can discourage people from talking openly about such groups’ activities.
In 2017, the House of Representatives passed the National Identification and Registration Act, which established the groundwork for a National Identification System (NIDS) that requires the collection of people’s personal information. Privacy advocates expressed concern about possible overreach. In April 2019, the Constitutional Court ruled the NIDS unconstitutional, saying that the requirement to submit biometric data infringed on Jamaicans’ privacy; in November, Prime Minister Holness vowed to introduce a revised bill in 2020.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is provided for by the constitution and is largely respected in practice. Protests are occasionally marred by violence or otherwise unsafe conditions, though several protests were held in 2019 without major incident.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Jamaica has a robust and vibrant civil society with many active community groups. However, some struggle financially or have difficulty attracting volunteers, negatively impacting their levels of engagement. Others are funded by the central government, but for the most part act autonomously. NGOs are well represented in the education, health, and environment sectors, and many provide support for the most marginalized groups in society.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Around 20 percent of the workforce is unionized, and antiunion discrimination is illegal. Labor unions are politically influential and have the right to strike. However, workers in essential services must undergo an arbitration process with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security before they may legally strike, and the definition of the work constituting “essential services” is broad. There are reports of private employers laying off unionized workers and then later hiring them as contract workers.
The Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT) is empowered to reinstate workers whose dismissals are found to be unjustified, although cases before the IDT often take much longer to settle than the 21 days stipulated by the law.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
Judicial independence is guaranteed by the constitution, and while the judiciary is widely considered independent, corruption remains a problem in some lower courts.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
A large backlog of cases and a shortage of court staff at all levels continue to undermine the justice system. Trials are often delayed for many years and at times cases are dismissed due to systemic failures. In order to reduce the backlog, the government passed the 2017 Criminal Justice (Plea Negotiations and Agreements) Act, which increased avenues for the resolution of cases outside of trial. Since its passage, prosecutors, judges, and government officials have noted an unwillingness from some defendants to consider plea deals; in June 2019, Chief Justice Bryan Sykes vowed to launch an information campaign to persuade defendants to consider plea agreements.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||2.002 4.004|
Killings by police remain a serious problem in Jamaica. According to the Independent Commission of Investigations, 86 people were shot and killed by security personnel in 2019. This represents a decline in reported shooting deaths by security forces; 168 people were killed in 2017, and 137 in 2018.
Gang and vigilante violence remain common. Kingston’s insular “garrison” communities remain the epicenter of most violence and serve as safe havens for criminal groups. Jamaica is a transit point for cocaine, and much of the island’s violence is the result of warfare between drug-trafficking organizations. A range of initiatives to address the problem have been undertaken by successive governments, but crime and violence remain deeply entrenched.
States of emergency were declared in the parishes of Clarendon, St. Andrew, St. Catherine, St. James, and Westmoreland for much of 2019, as part of the government’s efforts to address violent crime. Despite these measures, the government reported a national tally of 1,326 murders in late December, an increase from the 1,256 murders recorded by the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) in 2018.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||1.001 4.004|
Harassment of and violence against LGBT+ people remains a major concern and is frequently ignored by the police. Anti-LGBT+ discrimination is pervasive. A 2016 report published by J-FLAG (Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays) found that 88 percent of survey respondents felt that male homosexuality was immoral, 83.7 percent felt the same for female homosexuality, and 83.5 percent felt bisexual relationships were immoral; these results represented an increase over the results of a 2011 survey.
While unequal treatment of LGBT+ people remains common, progress has been made in recent years. Legislation against sodomy, which is punishable by 10 years in prison with hard labor, was challenged in court in 2013. The claimant withdrew in 2014 after receiving death threats, but his representative, LGBT+ advocate Maurice Tomlinson, launched a new suit in 2015; in November 2019, Tomlinson testified to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that the government repeatedly moved to delay its consideration. In 2018, a parliamentary subcommittee proposed a national referendum on repealing Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law, but the move was criticized by LGBT+ activists who felt legislators should scrap the law themselves; the referendum remained under consideration at the end of 2019.
In 2014, the government added a provision to the Offences Against the Person Act that criminalized the production, recording, or distribution of audio or visual materials promoting violence against any category of persons, including LGBT+ individuals.
Jamaica’s first public pride event took place in 2015; while subsequent events have grown larger, pride events are still met with government reticence. A pride event scheduled in Montego Bay was cancelled in September 2019 after local officials denied the organizers access to a cultural center. Some high-profile politicians have also spoken out publicly in support of J-FLAG in recent years.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men but suffer employment discrimination and tend to earn less than men for performing the same job.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
Although there are constitutional guarantees of freedom of movement, political and communal violence frequently precludes the full enjoyment of this right. States of emergency that were enacted during much of 2019 restricted movement, with residents of affected areas facing road blocks, random searches, and identity checks. There are no formal restrictions on people’s ability to change their place of employment or education.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
Jamaica has an active private sector and a powerful probusiness lobby. Individuals are free to establish businesses subject to legal requirements, which are not onerous. Recent reforms have included expediting the incorporation process, making electricity in Kingston more consistent, and easing the import process. However, corruption and crime can still hamper normal business activity. The World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business report, published in October 2019, noted difficulties in paying taxes, registering property, and enforcing contracts.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Legal protections for women and girls are poorly enforced, and violence and discrimination remain widespread. There is no blanket ban on spousal rape, nor are there laws against sexual harassment. Child abuse, including sexual abuse, is widespread.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Residents of neighborhoods where criminal groups are influential are at a heightened risk of becoming victims of human traffickers. Because of the poverty in certain communities and high-profile tourism industry, child sex tourism is present in some of Jamaica’s resort areas, according to local NGOs.
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