The UN Committee on Human Rights is developing a new General Comment on Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that addresses the right to life. The last General Comment on the topic, adopted in 1982, centered on violations of the right to life resulting from war, acts of mass violence, crime, and state measures, the death penalty in particular.
The decision of the Committee to adopt a new General Comment appears to have originated in an assessment made by its members that time was ripe to revisit the subject, if nothing else because world conditions have changed in the 33 years that have elapsed since the previous Comment was issued. In order to enrich the content of the draft document discussed, an open debate was held on July 14th, 2015, in Geneva. According to the report released by the Committee, 40 organizations and individuals presented their statements and, in a few cases, the commissioners interacted with presenters.
Amongst these 40 participants, 11 organizations and individuals expressed their concerns and critical views from the point of view of human rights (broadly speaking), peace, and anti-death penalty advocacy (this group ranged from Amnesty International to the Quaker United Nations Office). Two organizations elaborated on how extreme situations of non-compliance of economic and social rights – access to land, water, housing, and food – can translate into the violation of the right to life. One youth organization articulated the topic with the current environmental crisis. UNAIDS presented a submission underlining how obstacles impairing access to HIV & AIDS treatment are to be interpreted as potential violations of the right to life and ILGA expressed the concerns of LGBT organizations and persons in regard to homophobic lethal crimes and extra-judicial, executions.
But from the point of view of sexual and reproductive rights, the most glaring feature of the hearing was that practically all other interventions addressed specifically the right to life in relation to abortion. On one side of the spectrum, thirteen anti-abortion statements were read by international and regional organizations from Europe and Latin America. And at the other end, five organizations and one individual scholar who support the right to legal and safe abortions have also submitted their views on human rights interpretations of the right to life. These voices came from all regions, and the submission presented by Center for Reproductive Rights was signed by over 50 organizations and experts. Though not highlighted in the briefs that circulated about the hearing, IPAS Brazil also forwarded to the Committee a collective submission signed by six local NGOs and two national feminist networks.
The composition of the group attending the hearing indicates that political and conceptual debates around the meanings and violations of the ‘right to life has’ become more diverse than it was 30 years back. On the one hand, this transformation is to be praised as a sign of greater plurality. On the other, the profile of the conversation confirms that the right to life in relation to abortion is gradually monopolizing the field. Though for those of us working in the reproductive rights field this was predictable, it appears that this concentration on the topic of abortion has somehow surprised members of the Committee and other participants.
In Geneva, the discussion on abortion has inevitably taken much longer than other topics. Although the hearing had the potential to escalate into one of those virulent “abortion wars,” observers have noted that the climate was rather smooth and respectful. Even so, the anti-abortion speakers have not always respected the time limits. They were also quite repetitive in their arguments, which made it difficult for the dialogue to positively evolve. It should also to be noted, perhaps, that the large number of anti-abortion voices that were present says a lot about the financial and operational capacity of these organizations.
Abortion rights advocates, on the other hand, raised arguments that examined the interpretation of the right to life in the realm of reproductive decisions from quite diverse angles, but which most principally focused on positive jurisprudence delivered by national and regional courts in recent years. The International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion has produced and circulated a quite complete briefing of the hearing in which these multiple views are reflected.
The Geneva hearing was just one step in the drafting of the new General Comment on Article 6. As it is not clear if and how the positions then expressed will be incorporated in the final text, those committed to the right to legal and safe abortion cannot lose sight of this process. On the one hand, the Geneva meeting confirms that confrontations with anti-abortion positions will not be avoided. But, on the other, it also shows that a number of other actors are engaged in the conversation. Abortion rights advocates can and should exchange views and establish political connections with these actors to make sure that the new General Comment reflects the gains made in the course of the last few decades with respect to reproductive autonomy in constitutional court decisions and the considerations and recommendations issued by international human rights surveillance mechanisms.