OHCHR condemns “draconian impact” from 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 how Salvadorian women can be locked up for up to 40 years for having an abortion.

Only a few hours ahead of International Women’s Day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, deplored the “draconian impact” of El Salvador’s restrictive laws on abortion, which since 1998, have deprived more than 159 Salvadorian women from their freedom for having an induced abortion or a miscarriage. Zeid expressed dismay at the situation of women serving prison sentences of up to 40 years as he presented his annual report to the Human Rights Council, held this month in Geneva.

El Salvador is one of four Latin-American countries holding an absolute ban on abortion, even in cases where the woman’s life is in danger, rape or if the foetus is nonviable. In addition, legislation is severely enforced, leading to a great number of women being tried and sentenced for crimes related to abortion.

In his speech, 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 recently released 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 Zeid of “how cruel we humans can be”.

El Salvador’s representatives responded to Zeid’s declarations arguing that the State has always cooperated with the UN human rights system and that the High Commissioner should direct his report towards creating spaces for discussion. “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,” a representative said.

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

The decade Teodora Vázquez had to spend in prison for having suffered a miscarriage comes to show El Salvador’s lack of will to heed the international community’s calls to cease criminalisation of women for having an abortion. The strict enforcement of these laws particularly affects the most impoverished women, as Zeid highlighted : “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”.

Even if commuting Vázquez’s sentence is a step forward, she has yet to be declared innocent and many other Salvadorian women are still facing great human rights violations, he warned.  The High Commissioner also expressed 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,” he concluded.