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Why a Global Dialogue on Decriminalisation, Choice and Consent?

Around the world, various aspects of reproductive and sexual conduct, identities, and expression remains criminalised. In some instances where some of this has been decriminalised we see renewed efforts towards criminalisation.

Family (personal) laws continue to exclude individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Health policies prioritise and accord legitimacy to heterosexual sex taking place within marriage and for reproduction. Sex taking place outside marriage and/or between same sex partners and transactional sex remains criminalised and stigmatised.

During the past decade within the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) advocacy landscape there has been a neglect of the complicated and messy questions around the nature of choice and consent, which lies at the heart of the situation described above. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have provided the overarching framework within which countries as well as multi-lateral and regional mechanisms have defined their development agenda. The MDGs to a large extent have served to reduce the broader SRHR agenda to a more limited focus on maternal health. An essential corollary of this has been the de-politicisation of sexual and reproductive health and rights and the broader ambit of issues it seeks to address. On-going civil society efforts to promote a more inclusive, rights-based framing have remained fragmented partly as a result of funding streams and the way these have narrowed the vision on SRHR and partly because often the complicated and complex nature of issues of choice and consent are not amenable to easy consensus building.

To address this gap and need for critical debate and discussion, CREA, along with Amnesty International, the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, and the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale Law School organised a Global Dialogue on Decriminalisation, Choice and Consent at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, Italy, from October 22-24, 2014. The focus of the Dialogue was to discuss threadbare consent (and choice) including the way it is defined and addressed within criminal law and covered a range of issues around sexual agency, orientation, identity and SRHR.

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Reproductive Rights Violations as Torture and Cruel Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Women and girls worldwide face a wide range of violations to their sexual and reproductive rights, such as lack of access to contraception and safe abortion, female genital mutilation (FGM), and sexual violence. Moreover, when accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare services women and girls encounter low-quality, often negligent and abusive care and treatment. These human rights violations often involve tremendous physical and psychological pain and arguably rise to the level of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (CIDT), but historically they have not been recognized as such.

In recent years, the Center for Reproductive Rights (the Center) and other civil society organizations have extensively documented the ways in which abuses of women’s sexual and reproductive rights rise to the level of torture or CIDT and have advocated for recognition of the severity of these violations. The situation is continuing to change as international and regional human rights bodies and experts increasingly recognize that certain reproductive rights violations amount to torture or CIDT.

Establishing the most severe reproductive rights violations as a contravention of the right to be free from torture or CIDT can reinforce the urgency of addressing these issues and challenge impunity for such conduct. As the United Nations (UN) Committee against Torture (CAT Committee) has repeatedly stated, the right to be free from torture and CIDT carries with it non-derogable state obligations to prevent, punish, and redress violations of this right. By highlighting the links between the right to be free from torture and CIDT and other human rights, such as the right to the highest attainable standard of health, advocates can place greater pressure on states to take immediate and effective action to respect, protect, and fulfi ll women’s reproductive rights. Recognizing these rights violations as forms of torture or CIDT reinforces state’s legal obligations to provide appropriate remedies and reparations. This analysis also challenges the traditional conception of reproductive rights as limited to the right to health; instead, it reveals the ways in which a broad range of human rights are implicated when reproductive rights are violated. Moreover, it provides advocates with greater leverage to demand government accountability and halt future violations.

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Rights within Marriage and the Family

This briefing paper takes an in-depth look at the standards developed by six United Nations (UN) “treaty monitoring bodies,” or committees, in the area of marriage and family life.

Following a brief overview of the origin and work of the committees, the briefing paper reviews standards each body has adopted as it has monitored governments’ compliance with their duties under international human rights law. The committees have made it clear that, in the context of marriage and private life, governments are bound to protect women’s health and lives.

Government Duties to Ensure Women’s Equality

A woman’s rights within marriage have enormous implications for her ability to participate fully in society and make autonomous decisions about reproduction. When women are betrothed as young girls, forced into marriage roles based on gender stereotypes, and deterred from fleeing violent relationships, they have little opportunity to pursue opportunities outside of the home. Their resulting subordination makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, the impact of which is often invisible to the outside world. International law offers longstanding protections against these abuses within marriage. One of the basic principles governing marriage under human rights law is that no one may be forced to enter into a marriage against his or her will. Moreover, men and women have equal rights upon entry into marriage, during marriage, and at its dissolution.

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General comment No. 36 (2018) on Article 6 of the ICCPR, on the right to life

“The right to life is the prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other human rights” – Yuval Shany, Chair of the Human Rights Committee. This general comment provides a rich and authoritative statement of the obligations deriving from the right to life, which the Committee defines as ‘the supreme right’.

It touches on the relationship between the right to life and other human rights, as well as other international law norms. The Comment then identifies the obligations of states to protect life against a variety of challenges, including environmental degradation, war and extreme poverty. The general comment also addresses the duties of states to individuals located outside their territory, but affected nonetheless by their activities or activities of corporations based in their territory. The document also declares that states that have not yet abolished the death penalty should gradually move toward abolition.  

Para. 3. The right to life is a right which should not be interpreted narrowly. It concerns the entitlement of individuals to be free from acts and omissions that are intended or may be expected to cause their unnatural or premature death, as well as to enjoy a life with dignity.

Para. 8: … States parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, and where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering… States [have the duty to] ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions, and they should revise their abortion laws accordingly… they should not take measures such as criminalizing pregnancies … [and] remove existing barriers that deny effective access by women and girls to safe and legal abortion [i.e. exercise of conscientious objection].

Para 23. … States [must] take special measures of protection towards persons in situation of vulnerability whose lives have been placed at particular risk because of specific threats or pre-existing patterns of violence [including] human rights defenders, officials fighting corruption and organized crime, humanitarian workers, journalists, prominent public figures, witnesses to crime, and victims of domestic and gender-based violence and human trafficking… children, especially children in street situations, unaccompanied migrant children and children in situations of armed conflict, members of ethnic and religious minorities and indigenous peoples, LGBTI persons, persons with albinism, alleged witches, displaced persons, asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons.

Para. 26. The duty to protect life also implies that States parties should take appropriate measures to address the general conditions in society that may give rise to direct threats to life [including] high levels of criminal and gun violence, pervasive traffic and industrial accidents, degradation of the environment, deprivation of land, territories and resources of indigenous peoples, the prevalence of life threatening diseases, such as AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria, extensive substance abuse, widespread hunger and malnutrition and extreme poverty and homelessness.

Para. 61. Any deprivation of life based on discrimination in law or fact is ipso facto arbitrary in nature. Femicide, which constitutes an extreme form of gender-based violence that is directed against girls and women, is a particularly grave form of assault on the right to life.

Para. 62. Environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life. Obligations of States parties under international environmental law should thus inform the contents of article 6 of the Covenant, and the obligation of States parties to respect and ensure the right to life should also inform their relevant obligations under international environmental law.

Para. 63. … State party has an obligation to respect and to ensure the rights of all persons who are within its territory and all persons subject to its jurisdiction [where it exercises power or effective control]. This includes persons located outside any territory effectively controlled by the State, whose right to life is nonetheless impacted by its military or other activities in a direct and reasonably foreseeable manner.

Para. 64. Like the rest of the Covenant, article 6 continues to apply also in situations of armed conflict to which the rules of international humanitarian law are applicable, including to the conduct of hostilities.

Para. 65. States parties engaged in the deployment, use, sale or purchase of existing weapons and in the study, development, acquisition or adoption of weapons, and means or methods of warfare, must always consider their impact on the right to life

Universality, cultural diversity and cultural rights

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, examines the cultural rights approach to the universality of human rights, and the close interrelationship between universality and cultural diversity.

She enumerates current threats to universality, calling for foundational renewal and vigorous defence of this principle.  In today’s polarized world, we need a sophisticated multi-directional stance. We must simultaneously defend the universality of human rights from those seeking to use culture and cultural claims as a weapon against rights and against others, and at the same time defend cultural rights and respect for cultural diversity, in accordance with international standards, when those principles come under attack.

Universality is under threat in particular from attempts to justify a selective approach to it, by:

(a) granting human rights only to some persons and not to others;
(b) committing only to some rights, such as civil and political rights or economic, social and cultural rights, but not to the whole indivisible and interdependent system of human rights; or
(c) recognizing as universal only the rights that all are deemed to agree on, and not all the rights in the universal framework guaranteeing human dignity and equality for all.

Any State or stakeholder advocating these selective approaches undermines the principles of universality, indivisibility and interdependence of rights and weakens the foundations of the human rights system. The universal guarantee of all human rights to all human beings must be defended to protect the dignity of all and to promote a universal human rights culture.

The other set of major threats concerns cultural relativism and repeated attempts to put particularities — of one region, one group, one world view or one interpretation of culture and religion — above the universal norms of human rights. Cultural relativism has been repudiated by human rights law and should not be tolerated in any setting, and especially not in the United Nations and human rights bodies. Each cultural practice, norm and tradition must stand the test of universal human rights and show its capacity to build and maintain human dignity to be legitimate.

It is essential in 2018 to understand that there is a diversity of cultural diversities in each and every society, and that this is not a threat or an impediment to universal human rights, but a reality and a resource. At the same time, we must not overlook our commonalities and overemphasize our differences.

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Reproductive Rights: A Tool for Monitoring State Obligations

The Monitoring Tool provides a means for human rights experts responsible for overseeing compliance with international legal standards on human rights to monitor the implementation of specific State obligations in the field of reproductive rights.

The tool outlines State obligations under international and regional human rights law on a range of reproductive rights issues—freedom from discrimination, contraceptive information and services, safe pregnancy and childbirth, abortion and post-abortion care, comprehensive sexuality education, freedom from violence against women, and HIV/AIDS. The tool then identifies key questions that human rights experts and monitoring bodies can use to assess to what extent a State is in compliance with its obligations.

International standards on reproductive rights are grounded in core human rights treaties and are continuously evolving. International treaty bodies and regional human rights mechanisms play an essential role in ensuring the continued consolidation and elaboration of these standards. In identifying State obligations, the tool relies on international legal standards on these issues as they currently stand, based on authoritative interpretations of major United Nations treaties through General Comments, individual complaints, and concluding observations, as well as standards developed through reports by Special Procedures and regional human rights bodies. This tool is designed to facilitate monitoring of State compliance with these obligations and to support this continued consolidation; it is not intended to be an exhaustive account of these obligations.

In evaluating States’ compliance with their international human rights obligations, experts and monitoring bodies should draw from governmental and non-governmental sources to build up a complete picture: this should include both qualitative and quantitative information. The questions set out in the tool are designed to guide the analysis of this information in line with international standards on reproductive rights, and to enable experts and monitoring bodies to draw specific conclusions and make concrete recommendations for action.

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The Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa: An Instrument for Advancing Reproductive and Sexual Rights

This briefing paper offers concrete suggestions for women’s health and rights advocates within and beyond Africa. It provides detailed information that can help African women use the protocol to exercise their reproductive rights, and suggests ways that governments can implement the protocol’s landmark provisions. The paper can also be useful to advocates outside Africa who are seeking to establish similar guarantees.

On November 25, 2005, the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa1 (the protocol) entered into force, after being ratified by 15 African governments.Two years earlier, in July of 2003, the African Union—the regional body that is charged with promoting unity and solidarity among its 53 member nations—adopted this landmark treaty to supplement the regional human rights charter, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter). The protocol provides broad protection for women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights.

The significance and potential of the protocol go well beyond Africa. The treaty affirms reproductive choice and autonomy as a key human right and contains a number of global firsts. For example, it represents the first time that an international human rights instrument has explicitly articulated a woman’s right to abortion when pregnancy results from sexual assault, rape, or incest; when continuation of the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the pregnant woman; and in cases of grave fetal defects that are incompatible with life. Another first is the protocol’s call for the prohibition of harmful practices such as female circumcision/female genital mutilation (FC/FGM), which have ravaged the lives of countless young women in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the worst indicators of women’s health—particularly of reproductive health—of any world region. These indicators include the highest number of HIV-positive women and the highest infant, maternal, and HIV-related death rates worldwide. The ability of a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body and her reproductive life are key to improving these indicators. The protocol can help advocates pressure governments to address the underlying social, political, and health-care issues that contribute to the dismal state of women’s health throughout the continent.

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The Holy See at the United Nations: An Obstacle to Women’s Reproductive Health and Rights

This briefing paper calls into question the legitimacy of the Holy See’s status as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer and illustrates how this status is used to obstruct women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The Roman Catholic Church is uniquely positioned to influence international policy-making. It speaks on issues of concern for its religious followers in numerous nations around the world. At the international level, the Roman Catholic Church uses its distinctive position at the United Nations to affect a wide range of global issues, including international economic development, women’s status, population, and family planning. Although the Roman Catholic Church pursues many admirable strategies towards poverty eradication and economic development, it undermines its own advocacy on these issues by taking positions that run counter to the equality and empowerment of women – one half of the world’s people.

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Bringing Rights to Bear – Freedom from Violence is a Human Right

This briefing paper examines the standards developed by six UN bodies, or Committees, in the area of violence, ill treatment, and torture. Following a brief overview of the origin and work of the TMBs, the paper reviews standards each body has adopted as it has monitored governments’compliance with their duties under international human rights law.

International law condemns violence against women in all its forms, whether it occurs in the home, schools, the workplace, or in health care facilities. Human rights standards guarantee the right to be free from violence, ill treatment, and torture, as well as the rights to life, health, and non-discrimination. These guarantees create a government duty to protect women from violence, regardless of who perpetrates it. United Nations human rights bodies have been key players in building governments’ understanding of their affirmative duties to stop violence against women.

Again and again, these commit-tees have stressed that international treaty commitments require government action against violence against women.

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Understanding Religious Fundamentalisms for Activists

This manual is designed for activists, networks and organizations confronting religious fundamentalist opposition to their rights-based work. AWID has prepared this manual based on the experiences and analysis of hundreds of women’s rights activists in diverse regions of the world, with the aim of offering an accessible resource to inform and support advocacy, strategies and dialogue on the issue of religious fundamentalisms.

The manual is divided into four chapters that build on each other.

chapter 1 describes the main shared characteristics of religious fundamentalisms as defined by women’s rights activists, and provides a brief historical perspective, as well as reflections and challenges regarding the term.

chapter 2 provides an outline of some of the main sociocultural, economic and political factors that may enable the rise of religious fundamentalisms.

chapter 3 focuses on some key religious fundamentalist strategies, including their arguments and messaging.

chapter 4 identifies some of the strategies that feminist and other rights-based activists and movements are using to resist religious fundamentalisms.

chapter 5 suggests a series of group activities for use in workshops, and ends with a selection of web links and video resources relating to religious fundamentalisms and rights-base efforts to challenge them.