At the recently concluded session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Nicaragua came up against intense and concerted international pressure from fellow United Nations (UN) member states over the abortion ban the Latin American country’s National Assembly adopted unanimously into law four years ago.
Despite promising initial evidence that the prohibition on abortion has helped lower maternal mortality rates, Nicaragua has been the target of international pressure and scrutiny from UN agencies, donor governments and non-governmental organizations.
Last month, Nicaragua underwent the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which is an opportunity for the UN Human Rights Council – an inter-governmental UN body made up of 47 States responsible for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them – to examine the human rights record of all member states. Each country is reviewed every four years with the aim of ensuring compliance with international human rights obligations.
As part of its UPR, Nicaragua defended its pro-life legislation reporting that “legal amendments reflected the exercise of sovereignty, and had been adopted by the parliamentary majority in the national assembly.” Nicaragua stated that the abortion ban was “an issue of sovereignty, not a religious one” as “the majority of Nicaraguans believed that the right to life of the unborn was important.”
Countering criticisms previously issued against the ban by members of the international community, Nicaragua concluded that “those who opposed the amendment could seize the courts.” Nicaragua reported that many cases had been brought before the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment, and decisions are still pending. Medical staff are not forbidden to provide medical care when the life of the mother was in danger.
Prior to Nicaragua’s UPR appearance, Amnesty International (AI) launched a campaign calling on other countries to pressure Nicaragua to repeal the abortion ban. The AI campaign argued that “UN member states should take this opportunity to hold Nicaragua to account for a law that violates women’s right to life, health and dignity.”
However, no UN treaty mentions abortion and there is no binding human rights obligation to allow abortions. Members of the committees charged with overseeing state compliance to the treaties have taken it upon themselves to attach a “right to abortion” under long-established rights like the rights to the highest attainable standard of health, privacy or the right to be free from discrimination and have used this misinterpretation of international law to push abortion on sovereign nations.
At the Human Rights Council meeting, a number of countries lined up to chastise Nicaragua and urge a repeal of the ban. Eleven countries spoke out against the law, urging Nicaragua to consider: the decriminalization of abortion, ‘hard-case’ exceptions to the ban such as rape and incest, or for “therapeutic” reasons, and removing punitive provisions against women and against medical personnel who have “exercised their professional responsibilities.” Slovenia, Netherlands, Norway, the Czech Republic, Mexico, United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Finland, Sweden and Germany all pressed Nicaragua to repeal the abortion ban.