CEDAW Meets in Geneva and Zeroes in on Abortion

The committee that monitors states compliance with Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) opened its latest session in Geneva this week to review the reports of 12 states.  Even prior to the arrival of country delegations in Geneva, the committee had already begun questioning states on abortion, though the treaty itself is silent on the subject. At this session, the CEDAW committee will review the reports of Belgium, Canada, Ecuador, Uruguay, Kyrgyzstan, Slovenia, Mongolia, Bahrain, El Salvador, Madagascar, Myanmar and Portugal on how those countries are implementing their obligations under CEDAW.  A glance at the list of pre-sessional questions sent to the states reveals that all but four were questioned on abortion.

In the pre-sessional documents, the committee asked El Salvador for information on how the government was implementing a previous recommendation that urged the government to allow abortion. The committee asked Myanmar to explain whether “women have a right to terminate a pregnancy resulting from sexual violence.”  The committee also criticized Uruguay’s law criminalizing abortion, which the committee says “has not helped reduce secret and unsafe abortions,” and asked for detailed information on how Portugal is implementing its new law which permits government-funded therapeutic abortions during the first 10 weeks.

States will be expected to answer these concerns when they come face-to-face with the committee during the session. At the end of the session, the CEDAW committee will issue its recommendations for each country. While these recommendations are non-binding, abortion activists have brought litigation throughout the world citing the ruling of United Nations human rights treaty bodies, like the CEDAW Committee, in challenging laws against abortion. Such arguments helped convince Colombia’s constitutional court to liberalize that country’s restrictions on the practice.

CEDAW critics have become increasingly concerned about the work and composition of the committee. In recent years CEDAW committee members have pressured more than 60 nations on their abortion legislation.

According to guidelines, the 23 members of the CEDAW committee should be “independent” and “of high moral standing and competence.” A recent survey of the committee revealed, however, that half of the CEDAW committee members are direct employees of such radical non-governmental organizations as the Latin America and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (known by its Spanish acronym CLADEM), the International Council of Women, and the Global Fund for Women.    

At the current session, CLADEM submitted alternative country reviews for both El Salvador and Uruguay. CLADEM declared that Uruguay “must de-penalize the interruption of pregnancy…in accordance with CEDAW” and demanded that El Salvador “reform abortion legislation” and “consider exceptions to general abortion prohibitions in therapeutic abortion cases.” Silvia Pimental, a sitting CEDAW committee member, is a founding member of CLADEM and is still listed on CLADEM’s website as a member of its honorary consulting council.

The next CEDAW committee session is scheduled to take place next January in Geneva.   Recently, the UN formally empowered the committee to meet three times annually starting it 2010, which it had already been doing as an “extraordinary” measure.

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