The United Nations (UN) committee charged with monitoring compliance with the Convention Against Torture has declared that Nicaragua’s full protection of fetal life violates the country’s obligations under the Convention. This is the first time this committee has reviewed Nicaragua since that government outlawed abortion for any reason three years ago.
The torture committee is the fourth UN committee to pressure Nicaragua with respect to its laws protecting unborn life, joining the committees charged with monitoring the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Critics are increasingly concerned with what they view as the politicization of the treaty monitoring system by committees charged with oversight. Neither the Convention Against Torture nor any other UN treaty mentions abortion, and it was not contemplated when such treaties were negotiated and ratified that countries were committing themselves to altering domestic legislation on abortion.
In contrast, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has conscientiously construed its mandate as focusing on actual instances of racial discrimination. Because of its refusal to expand its mandate beyond the scope of the treaty that created it such as by engaging in abortion advocacy, CERD has been criticized by some in the human rights establishment.
Among the human rights lobbyist organizations that have increasingly lent a voice to abortion advocacy in the developing world is Amnesty International, which abandoned its previous neutrality on the issue in 2007. In a shadow briefing to the torture committee, Amnesty asserted that Nicaragua’s legislation banning all abortions was equivalent to government commissioned “torture” or at least “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” banned by the Convention.
Amnesty also claims that Nicaragua’s law "causes women and girls to die," an assertion disputed by pro-life critics. Carlos Polo, Director of Population Research Institute’s Latin American Office and a close observer of maternal health developments in Nicaragua, notes that "the best indicator of what is happening in any country regarding bad practices in gynecological and obstetric services are rates of maternal mortality." Polo points to statistics compiled by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health showing that maternal deaths have decreased since Nicaragua tightened its laws on abortion.
In comparison with Amnesty’s efforts to link abortion restrictions with maternal death regardless of what the evidence shows, even the unambiguously pro-abortion Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) has begun to shy away from making such claims. In a recent submission to the ICESCR committee, CRR criticized Brazil for emphasizing lack of access to abortion as "the most salient cause" of maternal mortality, pointing instead to its failure to provide emergency obstetric care. CRR went so far as to praise Sri Lanka for reducing maternal mortality – a country that CRR elsewhere acknowledges as having one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
In addition to Nicaragua, the torture committee has in the past pressured Chile and Peru, whose constitutions protect unborn life.