Nicaragua Pressured on Abortion

Geneva last week Nicaragua came under fire for its laws protecting the unborn. Members of the Human Rights Committee (HRC) – the treaty body that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – repeatedly grilled the Central American nation for outlawing abortion as Nicaragua presented its third periodic report detailing progress in implementing the treaty.Nicaragua banned all abortion in 2006 and rejected a “therapeutic” abortion amendment last year. In advance of the hearing, the HRC sent Nicaragua questions concerning its abortion law and rates of maternal mortality, which Nicaragua addressed in its report.  “Experts” on the Committee also had the opportunity to pose questions.

Among the queries was how, if Nicaragua were a “secular state,” a ban on abortion could be reconciled with secularity. The delegation responded by pointing out that though the state is secular, the “social reality” is that 90 per cent of the country’s 5.6 million people profess Christianity, implying that the laws reflected the value choices of a majority of Nicaraguans. The delegates added that if there came a time when a majority desired to change the country’s abortion laws, they could do so via the political process.

The ICCPR, like all major global human rights treaties, is silent on abortion. When signed in 1966, most nations had laws proscribing or otherwise restricting the practice.  Critics of the United Nations (UN) treaty bodies like HRC note that by reading a right to abortion into the ICCPR, the HRC has overstepped its mandate.

When Nicaragua strengthened its legislation protecting the unborn, it came under unprecedented pressure. A letter signed by government officials from Canada, the five Scandinavian countries, and several UN agencies – including the Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – accused Nicaragua of violating rights set forth in various international documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. 

More than a letter-writing exercise, the Swedish government severed aid last year to Nicaragua and three other pro-life Latin American nations, and Finland earlier this year linked a continuation of aid to changes in Nicaragua’s abortion law. 

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was a proponent of abortion when the revolutionary Sandinistas first came to power in the late 1970s. Since winning the presidency via democratic election in 2006, however, he has consistently defended Nicaragua’s pro-life position against foreign critics. Some have attributed his change of heart to his re-embrace of his baptismal Catholic faith.

Even more outspoken has been the First Lady of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo. This past September, she made a fiery speech denouncing proponents of abortion from the Global North who engage in cultural imperialism by seeking to impose the values of a soulless society where adults “prefer to raise pets instead of children.” 

The Geneva-based HRC meets three times a year to review countries’ progress in implementing the ICCPR, with every third session held in New York. Among the nations slated to appear before the treaty monitoring body in New York in March 2009 are Chad, Croatia and Sweden.

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