Women’s Reproductive Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights

The American Convention on Human Rights is an important human rights instrument, yet it contains a right to life provision. NAWL will not endorse ratification of the American Convention until we have the assurance that women’s reproductive rights, including the right to abortion, will be effectively guaranteed. NAWL wrote letters to the Ministers of Foreign Affairs in February and August 2004.

Honorable Bill Graham, February 2004

Honorable Pierre Pettigrew, August 2004

Honorable Bill Graham

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Government of Canada

February 2004

Honorable Minister,

I am writing to inform you of some of the concerns of the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) regarding ratification by Canada of the American Convention on Human Rights, to request that your Department undertake in-depth research on the gender-based impact of such ratification and to ask that you consult with equality-seeking women’s groups on this issue.

In the last two years, NAWL has held a number of discussions regarding ratification by Canada of the American Convention on Human (ACHR) and we recently participated in the ”Multi-stakeholder Meeting” that was organized by your Department prior to the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey. At that meeting, you indicated that you understood that women’s groups had abandoned their reluctance to endorse ratification of the ACHR. Although as a general principle, NAWL supports the strengthening of human rights instruments and mechanisms in the Americas, we are currently not in a position to endorse ratification of the ACHR until we have the assurance that women’s sexual autonomy and reproductive rights, including the right to abortion, will be effectively be guaranteed within that framework.

NAWL believes that Canadians could benefit from ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights if the accompanying Optional Protocol (the San Salvador Protocol on social, cultural and economic rights), the Interamerican Convention against violence against women, and the Convention against torture were ratified simultaneously. Also, it is likely that people across the Americas would gain from Canada’s increased engagement with the regional human rights system, increased funding and support to its institutions, as well as the easier reference to Canadian law and jurisprudence.

However, it is obvious to us that Article 4.1 of the ACHR stands as a significant obstacle to ratification, since it can be interpreted in ways that would seriously damage the human rights of women in Canada. Indeed, article 4.1 of the Convention explicitly guarantees the right to life “in general, as of the moment of conception”. This Article can be interpreted in such a way as to seriously interfere in a woman’s life, liberty and security of the person, as we understand them in Canadian law. To sign on to the Convention without specific, carefully researched safeguards would represent a gross violation of women’s equality rights, and once again subject women to second-class citizenship. The Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights has recognized the serious threat that article 4.1 of the Convention could pose to women’s rights, and it has recommended that ratification not be done without special measures to ensure the protection of women’s rights to abortion.

At the Multi-stakeholder meeting of December 16, you stated that your Department was poised to review it’s position on the ratification of the Convention. Has the Department of Foreign Affairs conducted research on the options for ratification that address article 4.1 and women’s rights to reproductive and sexual autonomy? More specifically, has it evaluated the respective merits of a reservation, an interpretive declaration and a conditional interpretive declaration? Has it explored other possible means of ratifying the Convention in such a way as to effectively ensure the full protection of women’s reproductive and sexual autonomy, and in particular the right to abortion ?

We are writing to request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience to discuss these issues, and to explore the possibility of holding a national consultation with women’s equality-seeking groups on these questions.

Yours truly,

Andrée Côté
Director of Legislation and Law Reform
National Association of Women and the Law

Encl.: The English and French version of NAWL’s discussion paper on the ratification of the ACHR

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Honourable Pierre Pettigrew

Minister of Foreign Affairs
House of Commons, Ottawa

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Minister Pettigrew,

I am writing on behalf of the National Association of Women and the Law to congratulate you on your recent appointment to the Cabinet as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

I would like to take this occasion to inform you of some of the concerns of the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) regarding ratification by Canada of the American Convention on Human Rights, to request that your Department undertake in-depth research on the gender-based impact of such ratification and to ask that you consult with equality-seeking women’s groups on this issue.

In the last two years, NAWL has held a number of discussions regarding ratification by Canada of the American Convention on Human (ACHR). Although as a general principle, NAWL supports the strengthening of human rights instruments and mechanisms in the Americas, we are currently not in a position to endorse ratification of the ACHR until we have the assurance that women’s sexual autonomy and reproductive rights, including the right to abortion, will be effectively be guaranteed within that framework.

Indeed, it is obvious to us that Article 4.1 of the ACHR stands as a significant obstacle to ratification, since it can be interpreted in ways that would seriously damage the human rights of women in Canada. Article 4.1 of the Convention explicitly guarantees the right to life “in general, as of the moment of conception”. This Article can be interpreted in such a way as to seriously interfere in a woman’s life, liberty and security of the person, as we understand them in Canadian law. To sign on to the Convention without specific, carefully researched safeguards would represent a gross violation of women’s equality rights, and subject women to second-class citizenship.

During the federal election campaign, Prime Minister Martin repeatedly reassured Canadians that he would defend women’s reproductive rights, and in particular the right to have an abortion. We trust that your ministry will share those views, and take all necessary measures to ensure that Canada’s international policy does not jeopardize those rights in any way. The Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights has recognized the serious threat that article 4.1 of the Convention could pose to women’s rights, and it has recommended that ratification not be done without special measures to specifically ensure the protection of women’s rights to abortion.

I am writing to inquire whether the Department of Foreign Affairs has conducted research on the options for ratification that address article 4.1 and women’s rights to reproductive and sexual autonomy? More specifically, has it evaluated the respective merits of a reservation, an interpretive declaration and a conditional interpretive declaration? Has it explored other possible means of ratifying the Convention in such a way as to effectively ensure the full protection of women’s reproductive and sexual autonomy, and in particular the right to abortion ?

We are writing to request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience to discuss these issues, and to explore the possibility of holding a national consultation with women’s equality-seeking groups on these questions.

Yours truly,

Andrée Côté
Director of Legislation and Law Reform
National Association of Women and the Law

For the members of NAWL’s Working Group on Reproductive Rights and the Americas

c.c.: Madame Liza Frulla, Minister Responsible for the Status of Women

Encl.: The English and French version of NAWL’s discussion paper on the ratification of the ACHR