OHCHR condemns “draconian impacts” from the abortion ban in El Salvador

por | 09-03-2018

During the presentation of his annual report before the UN Human Rights Council, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein regretted the situation of Salvadorian women who end up imprisoned for up to 40 years for having an abortion.

Only a few hours before the celebration of International Women’s Day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, deplored the “draconian impact” that stems from a legislation that has deprived more than 159 women in El Salvador from their freedom since 1998 for having an induced abortion or a miscarriage. During the presentation of his annual report to the Human Rights Council, held this month in Geneva for the thirty seventh time, Zeid expressed dismay at the situation of these women serving sentences of up to 40 years in prison.

El Salvador is one of the four Latin-American countries that maintains an absolute ban on abortion, without even permitting it in cases of danger for the woman’s life, in cases of rape or if the foetus is incompatible with life. In addition, legislation is severely enforced which is why a great number of women have been tried and sentenced for crimes related to abortion.

In his speech, delivered on March 7th, the High Commissioner referred to the case of Teodora Vázquez, sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008 for aggravated homicide after having suffered a stillbirth and who was recently freed by the Supreme Court of El Salvador. Having met Vázquez in 2017 during a visit to the detention centre of Ilopango, her story, as well as recent efforts by some lawmakers to raise the penalties for abortion for up to 10 years, reminded the High Commissioner of “how cruel we humans can be.”

El Salvador responded to Zeid’s speech and highlighted that “the cases of women detained for abortion, and current legislation, should be analysed by the Office of the High Commissioner in an objective manner and in an intermediate, collaborative context and in search for solutions and recommendations.” The State argued that they have always cooperated with the UN human rights system and that the High Commissioner should direct his report towards creating spaces for discussion.

Nonetheless, the various UN human rights mechanisms have been issuing recommendations for years, insisting that the Salvadorian State review its legislation regarding abortion for its repeal.

The decade Teodora Vázquez had to spend in prison for having suffered a miscarriage is evidence of El Salvador’s lack of will to acknowledge the international community’s calls to cease the harsh criminalisation of women who have had an abortion. The strict enforcement of these laws particularly affects the most impoverished women, as Zeid himself lamented in his speech: “Time and again, it is always the poor everywhere who, having no access to strong legal counsel, no family connections, no money with which to travel outside the country, suffer terribly – always, always the poor.”

Zeid warned that even if the commuting of Vázquez’s sentence was a step forward, she still had not been declared innocent and many other Salvadorian women were still facing great human rights violations, which is why once more he urged the State to review all cases of women incarcerated for having an abortion.

The High Commissioner also dedicated a few words to women’s sexual and reproductive rights defenders: “Wherever I have travelled I have been privileged to meet women who defy restrictions on their freedom. These resilient and powerful women teach us – have, indeed, taught me – that every individual can help to reshape society, and the world.”