This week, abortion advocates the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and Amnesty International (AI) are teaming up with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to host the “first-ever” briefings on “reproductive rights” for the committees responsible for monitoring compliance with the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
According to the CRR website, the briefing with the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) will focus on “reproductive rights violations” such “denial of reproductive healthcare services, including abortion and post-abortion care.”
Critics point out that not only has the term “reproductive rights” never before been included in any binding UN treaty, but also that delegations have made explicit statements to define abortion out of the term whenever it has been included in lower level, non-binding conference outcome documents and resolutions.
UN observers have watched compliance committees, especially the body that monitors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), overstep their mandates in over 100 different instances over the years to misinterpret treaty provisions and pressure countries to decriminalize or liberalize access to abortion.
The CRR briefing with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), co-sponsored by UNFPA, will address maternal mortality “as a human right issue.” CRR bills this meeting as part of its “ongoing advocacy” with this UN committee “as it develops its new general comment on sexual and reproductive health rights.”
In the C-FAM paper “Rights By Stealth,” authors Susan Yoshihara and Douglas Sylva explain that general comments “are the treaty body members’ own interpretations of the articles of the conventions” and that “once created, they serve as the committees’ official interpretations.” Even though states never agreed to any abortion provisions, a new general recommendation on “reproductive rights” and “sexual and reproductive health” signals that the committee will seek to expand the treaty beyond the boundaries set by those who carefully negotiated its language.
Recently, UNFPA has been holding meetings to work on an ICESCR General Comment. Aminata Toure of UNFPA stated, “we have to define the meaning for this right [to sexual and reproductive health] and the necessary actions to be taken by the states in order to realize it.” Luz Angela Melo, also with UNFPA, added that, “A General Comment on the right to sexual and reproductive health can be very useful for UNFPA’s advocacy work.”
States have started to push back on the misinterpretations of the treaty monitoring bodies. Just last year during the General Assembly, states registered objections to a reference on a new ICESCR general comment on “sexual orientation.” Iraq, on behalf of the Arab group, led the successful opposition to General Comment 20, and noted at the time that it was “of paramount importance to make it clear that international agreements should not be strangely interpreted.” The CRR briefings are scheduled for May 7 and May 10 in Geneva.