This week, Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, presented a groundbreaking report to the Human Rights Council addressing torture and ill-treatment in health care settings, and recognizing that many reproductive rights violations can be torture or ill-treatment.
Human rights bodies have traditionally addressed violations of reproductive rights as violations of the right to health, the right to life, or the right to privacy. But with increasing frequency, these bodies have acknowledged the severe pain and suffering that can result from laws and practices that violate reproductive rights, classifying such abuses as violations of the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Under international law, states have an obligation to protect that right in all circumstances. These abuses include:
- forced sterilization,
- denial of legal abortion, abortion after rape, and post-abortion care,
- denial of reproductive health information, and
- denial of emergency contraception.
The Center has been promoting reproductive rights violations as torture or ill-treatment for over a decade, bringing cases in front of regional human rights courts and UN treaty-monitoring bodies. The Center brought these examples to the attention of the Special Rapporteur at a convening it hosted in March 2012, in another session hosted by the Special Rapporteur in December, and through written submissions provided to the Special Rapporteur as he prepared this report. The Special Rapporteur incorporated many of the Center’s findings and cited many of the Center’s cases in his report, condemning several different reproductive rights violations as forms of torture or ill-treatment while recommending that states:
- outlaw forced and coerced sterilization in all circumstances,
- provide women with access to post-abortion emergency care without fear of criminal penalties, and
- ensure that abortion services where they are legal are also effectively available to women.
The Special Rapporteur’s report makes clear that the fulfillment of reproductive rights is essential to ensuring that women are free from torture or ill-treatment. The report thus reinforces the idea that, as part of the obligation to prevent torture or ill-treatment, states must change laws and practices that limit access to reproductive health information and services, prevent abuses, and hold accountable those who violate reproductive rights, both inside and outside health care settings.
On March 5, the Center also sponsored and participated in a side event at the Human Rights Council, alongside the Special Rapporteur on Torture, the World Health Organization, a member of the UN Committee against Torture, and other experts from non-governmental organizations working on abuses in health care settings. This event, entitled Towards Preventing Torture and Ill-Treatment in Health-Care Settings, provided an opportunity to discuss the Special Rapporteur’s report and make recommendations for next steps that states and the UN system can take to protect individuals from torture and ill-treatment.