Free representation for persons facing discrimination

Nassau, Bahamas — Gay men, sex workers and HIV-positive persons will be among Caribbean nationals who will qualify for free legal representation under the newly established Caribbean Social Justice Coalition, if they believe they are being discriminated against.

Already the foundation of the international apparel company Levi Strauss Company has stepped forward to become the first funder of the coalition, which has been registered as a legal entity and launched here at the 2011 Caribbean HIV Conference which concluded Monday at Atlantis Paradise Island.

Dr Ernest Messiah, director of the UNAIDS regional support team for the Caribbean, said the coalition was born out of a need for the region to provide a mechanism for people who are subject to arbitrary discrimination, especially those who are poor and cannot afford legal representation.

Explaining how the coalition will work, Messiah said a team of lawyers has already been identified and will have their travel expenses paid to get to and from the islands where the cases are being heard.

“Should they win a case, part of the award will go to the lawyer, part to the individual and part to the coalition so that the coalition won’t have to be overly dependent on external funding,” he said. He added that UNAIDS will also put resources in this coalition and other funders are also interested in funding it.

“The idea of how it will function is still being worked out but the basic principle is it must become self-sustaining,” said Messiah, who stressed that it would not only involve discrimination of HIV-infected persons but will provide a mechanism for anyone who seeks redress for injustice.

Miguel Bustos, senior programmes manager for the Americas at Levi Strauss, said that company has been involved in social justice ever since its inception and was one of the first to step forward in the 1980s when people first began dying from HIV in San Francisco. “We used to fund prevention and treatment but we decided we need to get to the root cause and fund advocacy,” he said. The company, he added, was delighted at this new initiative and was happy to be the first funder.

“We are pleased to fund the work to support men who sleep with men, sex workers, drug users and anybody else searching for human rights,” he said.

Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican lawyer on the team, said he opted to leave his private practice in intellectual property rights and take up this cause after he heard of some disturbing human rights violations.

He said the killing of 16-year-old Oshane Gordon on October 18, by men who hacked him to death in his house, because he was suspected of having questionable relations with another man, is one such cause that resulted in his involvement with the coalition.

“It is hard to hear those stories and go back to your life without being compelled to do something,” he said. As such, he said, he wanted to dedicate his work with the coalition to the Gordon’s memory.

Tomlinson said he is hoping to influence other colleagues to join in this work as it is tragic that a region which has seen so much oppression can continue to oppress others.

“I can’t understand why Jamaicans have a problem with privacy rights, and who people choose to love. That was one of the rights denied us as people brought here as slaves to populate a region, yet we can’t validate the love of two consenting adults,” he argued.

Dr Edward Greene, United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS for the Caribbean, said the initiative is even bigger than HIV/AIDS.

“It gives us as advocates something to grasp at and support because its success means we could succeed in our mission to eliminate discrimination of people living with AIDS,” he said. He added that social justice is something strived for in order to eliminate stigma of people living with HIV.

Miriam Edward, head of the Caribbean Association of Sex Workers, said this coalition should help sex workers who cannot afford legal representation. “We face a lot of challenges on the street where men would beat us and take back their money and then report us to the police and we are the ones who get locked up,” said the Guyanese national.

by Ingrid Brown, Observer senior reporter – The Jamaica Observer