Leading on Normative Development at the UN Human Rights Council


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Leading on Norm Building at the Human Rights Council: Resolutions on  ‘Preventable Maternal Mortality and Morbidity and Human Rights’ and ‘Promoting, Protecting and Respecting Women’s and Girls’ Full Enjoyment of Human Rights in Humanitarian Situations’

The Center extensively engages at the Human Rights Council to amplify the voices and priorities of our national partners at the global level and to ensure that the strongest human rights standards, including those pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and rights, are reflected in its resolutions.

Ensuring political will and meaningful commitments to gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights is crucial to holding governments accountable to their international human rights obligations and to ensure the full realization of women’s and girls’ human rights.

In particular, the Center has played a leading role on the issues of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity and women’s and girls’ human rights in humanitarian situations. These two resolutions were groundbreaking as they were each the first time these issues were being considered by the Council as human rights concerns; and they propelled UN member states to focus on key violations experienced by women and girls.

a) Preventable Maternal Mortality and Morbidity and Human Rights

In this landmark resolution, first adopted in 2009, the Human Rights Council:

  • Acknowledges that this is a human rights issue for the first time ever;

  • Expresses grave concern for the unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity;

  • Commits to enhance their efforts at the national and international level to protect the lives of women and girls worldwide;

  • Stresses that a human rights-based approach makes efforts against maternal mortality and morbidity more effective and sustainable; and

  • Commissioned a study by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to examine the human rights dimensions of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity, and how the Council can contribute to addressing this problem.

Since then, the resolution has become a standing thematic resolution of the HRC and has led to the creation of a technical guidance on a human rights-based approach to preventable maternal mortality and morbidity, which has been used by governments and civil society around the world in developing a rights-based approach to maternal health.

b) Promoting, protecting and respecting women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights in humanitarian situations

The resolution recognizes that humanitarian situations—such as those caused by conflicts and natural disasters—may cause and exacerbate gender discrimination and existing inequalities.

The resolution is the first ever to meaningfully consider women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights in humanitarian situations as a stand-alone issue, and highlights the applicability of human rights for all women and girls, in all contexts.

The resolution requests the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit to the Human Rights Council at its 49th session an analytical report on a comprehensive approach to promoting, protecting and respecting women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights in humanitarian situations.

c) Why does advocacy at the Human Rights Council matter?

The United Nations and its processes and outcomes set the tone globally as to what issues are understood to be important and what practices the global community accepts or condemns. Political will in support of reproductive rights is critical in supporting national social movements and civil society to make change for women and girls. Currently, conservative States and their allies have been leading a coordinated attack on sexual and reproductive health and rights, trying to undermine and dilute human rights standards, with real consequences on the lives of women and girls. However, collective mobilization from the Center and other reproductive rights and human rights organizations has ensured that the human rights of women and girls are protected, and even in the face of a well-resourced and mobilized opposition, we have made important progress.

Case Study on GC 36

The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by 173 countries, issued a General Comment to states on the interpretation of Article 6 of the Covenant, the right to life, providing guidance on how to implement its obligations under this Article. The Center led a coalition of NGOs that helped shaped the content of the Committee’s guidance on how right to life obligations apply to maternal health and to abortion. According to the World Health Organization, 295,000 women died of maternal causes in 2017, and unsafe abortion is one of the leading causes of maternal deaths.

In General Comment No. 36, the Human Rights Committee expressed the view that the duty to protect life includes that States should take appropriate measures to address the general conditions in society that may prevent individuals from enjoying their right to life with dignity. This obligation includes ensuring access to essential goods and services, including health-care, developing campaigns for raising awareness of gender-based violence and harmful practices, and for improving access to medical examinations and treatments designed to reduce maternal and infant mortality. It noted that that social and other determinants of health must be addressed in order for women to be able to seek and access the maternal health services they need and recommended that States should develop strategic plans and campaigns for improving access to treatments designed to reduce maternal mortality, as part of advancing the enjoyment of the right to life. As part of preventing foreseeable threats to the right to life In relation to abortion, the Human Rights Committee affirmed that States have a duty to ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions, which according to the World Health Organization, is a leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide, with restrictive laws being a main barrier to accessing safe abortion. Accordingly, the Human Rights Committee noted that States must not impose criminal sanctions against women and girls undergoing abortion or against medical service providers assisting them in doing so, and at a minimum, States “must provide access to safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, or where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable.” This formulation allows for a broad interpretation of the minimum grounds under which abortion should be made legal and also calls on states to take affirmative steps to provide access to abortion.

In line with WHO findings, the Human Rights Committee also set forth other recommendations to prevent unsafe abortion, including the removal of existing barriers to safe and legal abortion, including the exercise of conscientious objection by individual medical providers,  and should not introduce new barriers. The also noted that states should ‘protect the lives of women and girls against the mental and physical health risks associated with unsafe abortions. In particular, they should ensure access for women and men, and especially girls and boys, to quality and evidence-based information and education on sexual and reproductive health and to a wide range of affordable contraceptive methods, and prevent the stigmatization of women and girls who seek abortion.’ They also recommended ensuring ‘the availability of, and effective access to, quality prenatal and post-abortion health care for women and girls, in all circumstances and on a confidential basis.’

The Center’s Abortion Map illustrates the legal status of abortion worldwide.