From National to International: Jamaica’s 1961 Human Rights Policy

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The end of the empire in the Caribbean had a formative influence on universal human rights. Pushed by political actors at the national level, it reflected the long-standing interaction between national and international forces shaping political debates long before the gradual emergence of the United Nations human rights system in the late 1960s. and in the years that followed.

Traditional accounts that focus on years of international negotiations at the UN imply that the finalization of legal conventions has become the starting point for global human rights policy. Yet national processes around the world have directly fueled larger international results. National trends, especially in countries of the South, have been a harbinger of international human rights policy.

In January 1961, the Jamaican government led by Prime Minister Norman Manley announced that human rights would become guiding principles in the planning of the country’s national development. The intention was to produce “a ministerial document containing a statement of government human rights policy” and submit it to the Jamaican parliament for debate and adoption.

The motivation behind such an approach is not accidental and reflects a political synthesis that emerged between 1960 and 1961.

Not only was the government’s announcement the result of the convergence of three different political strands characterizing Jamaican decolonization; namely, development planning, human rights and nation-building; it was also an attempt by the Manley government to manage the expectations and demands of the Jamaican electorate. Public debates had become increasingly heated around growing inequalities with ramifications felt in the Caribbean.

By the late 1950s, Caribbean countries had moved towards decolonization, exacerbating debates over the political, economic, social and constitutional order that would shape independence. The region was also a central location for the emerging field of development economics. It was perhaps not surprising, then, that The West Indian Economist – a regional magazine with renowned economist W. Arthur Lewis on its editorial board – had become a key outlet for exploring these questions with a focus on human rights. man, the rule of law, and social justice.

In April 1960, in response to developments in the region, publishers asked their readers politically existential questions such as “Does the West Indies, as a growing nation, really value its citizens?” They went on to criticize governments in the region for making no real attempt to “instill in society at large objective values ​​of social justice.” The social fabric of the West Indies needed special attention for the greatest independence project to be successful.

It was this type of criticism that the Jamaican government felt the need to respond to, leading it to rely on human rights to provide a cohesive political response. Human rights had been the subject of cabinet discussions in the months leading up to the announcement of the January 1961 policy. Human rights also featured in a review of “Government Policies for long-term development ”, a review that had been conducted by the Jamaica Central Planning Unit established by Norman Manley in 1955.

The Unit criticized the absence of a clear statement on “national goals” and “the absence of any declared social end”. They declared that it was “the duty of the government first to make understand to the people of this country that they enjoy intangible rights and privileges of a value far superior to that of material things and, second, to make these rights and privileges as real as possible for the average man.

Decolonization has led many emerging states to approach human rights in a constitutional context, but this political process has taken the debate over their potential practical application a step further.

The Planning Unit called for a Bill of Rights, a comprehensive anti-discrimination law with special emphasis on economic and educational opportunities, including “equal pay for equal work”, and other reforms of human rights. human rights such as police reform and prison methods. The ambition was to “establish a code of conduct not only for the government in its own affairs but also among individuals”.

This was a remarkable set of proposals for a unit which, in terms of organization, was located between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Finance, and charged with directing government planning. Human rights were seen as vital to the political, social and economic goals of a viable and coherent state-building process. Decolonization has led many emerging states to approach human rights in a constitutional context, but this political process has taken the debate over their potential practical application a step further. It shows how the study of public administration processes in a late colonial context can be fertile ground for writing human rights history.

In 1962, a newly independent Jamaica joined the United Nations and immediately called on the international community to make human rights a top priority. In 1964, Jamaica was recognized as a world leader in human rights. In 1968, as I explored in my book The Making of International Human Rights, we can clearly identify the transformative impact that Jamaica’s diplomatic efforts have had on the evolution of human rights. How did Jamaica come to play this role in the early years after independence?

The two developments were linked. The 1961 political decision reflected a broader political vision that would shape Jamaica’s foreign policy. UN Ambassador Egerton Richardson, who was the driving force behind Jamaica’s international human rights diplomacy in the 1960s, had been, in his previous post as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, a central player in the deliberations leading to the announcement of the Jamaican government policy. in January 1961.

Previously, Norman Manley and Richardson had been instrumental in emphasizing education rights in Jamaica’s 1957 National Development Plan which focused on ending discrimination in access and that educational opportunities “provided by government should be open and available to allow a basis of true equality.” “Interestingly, a key feature of national planning and policy making in Jamaica’s late colonial period quickly became a central part of the country’s foreign policy strategy in the postcolonial era. with a remarkable effect.

Clearly, we need to operate well beyond normative trickle-down narratives.

The Jamaican case illustrates that the experiential and experimental dimensions – imperfect as they may be – of national human rights policy are historical factors that we must face, analyze and understand. They are in fact central elements of what the history of human rights can offer to the field of research as a whole.

Clearly, we need to operate well beyond normative trickle-down narratives. This is why the pressure to take a close look at national processes and their wider influence is increasingly visible in recent human rights historiography and, therefore, is so promising. Fortunately, we include more diverse geographic areas in our understanding of these political processes.

Confronting this story will prompt us to rethink pre-existing notions about the evolution of human rights and to greatly expand the sources that are used to write such stories. These are healthy developments and as is often the case, the past continues to speak in new ways in the present and the future.

This article is based on my chapter “From This Era of Passionate Self-Discovery: Norman Manley, Human Rights and the End of Colonial Rule of Jamaica” in the book Decolonization, Self-Determination, and the Rise of Global Human Rights Politics, edited by A. Dirk Moses, Marco Duranti and Roland Burke (Cambridge UP 2020).


This article is one of a series developed in partnership with the Danish Institute for Human Rights. The series explores different approaches to temporalities in human rights history and how this relates to their past, present and future.

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