From Rulings to Reality: Jamaica Must Repeal Homophobic Laws

Three years after landmark Americas decision urging repeal of homophobic laws, Jamaica has still failed to comply. A new report from the Human Dignity Trust says violence and discrimination against LGBT Jamaicans is ongoing and acute, calls for urgent reform of criminalising laws.

On 17 February 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a top body in the human rights system of the Americas, published a landmark decision finding the Jamaican government accountable for multiple human rights violations of two Jamaicans: Gareth Henry, a gay man, and Simone Edwards, a lesbian.

The IACHR upheld Henry and Edwards’ complaint that archaic provisions of the British colonial-era 1864 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) that outlaw the ‘abominable crime of buggery’ and acts of ‘gross indecency’ between males, with punishments of up to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labour, violate their rights under the American Convention on Human Rights and perpetuate violence against the entire LGBT community in Jamaica.

The IACHR recommended significant reforms, including the repeal of these homophobic laws, and urged comprehensive improvements to Jamaica’s socio-legal framework to address discrimination against LGBT people. The decision was a clear regional endorsement of the position of numerous UN human rights treaty bodies that criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual relations violates the human rights of LGBT people. It was also a recognition of the rampant violence and ongoing human rights abuses suffered by the LGBT community in Jamaica, which are fostered and enabled by these laws.

Despite the IACHR’s authoritative decision, Jamaica has failed to decriminalise same-sex intimacy or to implement any of the other recommendations. Instead, the government continues to downplay and ignore the violence and discrimination that plagues the lives of LGBT people, and actively resists any reform of its discriminatory sexual offence laws.

In 2023, the Supreme Court of Jamaica found that a ‘savings law clause’ in the Jamaican Constitution expressly prohibits courts from reviewing sections of the OAPA that criminalise consensual same-sex intimacy. In effect, Jamaica’s current legal framework immunises those sections of the OAPA from any judicial challenge.

Legislative reform to decriminalise same-sex intimacy and protect LGBT people against discrimination and violence is urgent. Jamaica is increasingly an outlier among neighbouring Caribbean states that have decriminalised consensual same-sex intimacy. The government must act now to bring the criminal laws of the country in line with its obligations under international human rights law, take urgent measures to reform its sexual offences legislation, and fully implement the decision of the IACHR.

Read the report