Law, Social Justice & Global Development
(An Electronic Law Journal)
Putting it to Good Use: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Women’s Right to Reproductive Health
Population Action International
New York, USA
This is a refereed article published on: 4 June 2004
Citation: Bogecho, D, ‘Putting it to Good Use: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Women’s Right to Reproductive Health’, 2004 (1) Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD).
This paper examines the protection of women’s reproductive rights under international law. The Cairo and Beijing Conferences specifically examined women’s rights as human rights and linked human rights with women’s right to reproductive health. The Beijing Conference pledged to end discrimination against women, marital rape, female genital mutilation, and domestic abuse, and, most importantly, upheld women’s right to free determination on all matters relating to sexuality and childbearing over and above religious and cultural differences. This paper examines the protection of these rights under the human rights framework established under the United Nations system, in particular, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the monitoring of compliance of ICCPR obligations under the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR by the Human Rights Committee.
Keywords: Human Rights, Human Rights Law, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Law, Reproductive Health, Reproductive Rights, Sexuality, Women
The author wishes to thank Professor Rebecca Cook, University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and Professor Mary Holland, New York University School of Law, for their technical help, advice, and support with this article.
For a woman to die from pregnancy and childbirth is a social injustice. Such deaths are rooted in women’s powerlessness and unequal access to employment, finances, education, basic health care and other resources. These factors set the stage for poor maternal health even before a pregnancy occurs, and make it worse once pregnancy and childbearing have begun.1
In the words of Rebecca Cook and MF Fathalla, ‘[w]omen’s health is often compromised not by lack of medical knowledge, but by infringements on women’s human rights’2. Today, after decades of struggle, the right to health has finally been articulated in international treaties and is slowly being implemented as a human right in a few countries. International discussions on health and human rights have also openly addressed the importance of women’s reproductive health in particular.
Recently, the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, specifically examined women’s rights as human rights. The Beijing Platform confirmed the link between human rights and women’s reproductive rights and pledged an end to discrimination against women, marital rape, female genital mutilation, and domestic battering.3 In addition to this, and perhaps most importantly, the conference emphasized the need for women to have the right to decide freely all matters related to sexuality and childbearing.4 Most of the discussion at the Beijing Conference affirmed the statements made the previous year at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and upheld the view that reproductive rights are human rights to be respected and to be guarded cross-nationally despite religious and cultural differences.
Although there now exists a general international consensus on the importance of women’s reproductive rights, are governments around the world taking these rights seriously? How are human rights being used to advance women’s right to reproductive health, and what is being done to improve such reproductive health? Furthermore, why is women’s reproductive health so important, and how can the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights be used to promote and to protect women’s right to reproductive health? This paper will address these questions.
The paper is organised into six parts. Part 2 briefly examines the link between women’s health and human rights and discusses why human rights are so important to advancing women’s reproductive health. Part 3 provides a short background to the United Nations treaty monitoring system by examining some of the major treaties that exist and looking at how they protect women’s health and human rights. Part 4 explains how the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in particular can be used to promote women’s reproductive health, focusing specifically on the fundamental ‘right to life’ delineated in the ICCPR. In Part 5, the analysis will include: (a) how the Human Rights Committee has applied the right to life in examining the reports of various countries; (b) what the Human Rights Committee expects governments to do in order to positively protect the right to life under the ICCPR; and (c) how the concepts of health and human dignity have been imported into the ‘right to life’ under the ICCPR. Finally, Part 6 will discuss how the Human Rights Committee can improve its Concluding Observations with regards to the health and rights of women in order to show state parties exactly what is required from them in their reports under the ICCPR. The improvement in reporting, I argue, will enable the Human Rights Committee to effectively monitor each state’s compliance with the ICCPR, especially with regards to the protection of women’s right to life.