Despite more than twenty years of rejection by the UN General Assembly, abortion advocates continue to clamor for an international right to abortion that is supported by UN treaties and international law. It is one of the most-contested propositions in the UN system.
The latest call comes from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who has released a “guidance note” for an upcoming negotiation on “reparations for conflict-related sexual violence.” He says abortion should be available to women who have been raped in wartime even if abortion is against the law where they reside.
The effort points up the increasingly creative ways abortion advocates are trying to get around the intransigence of the General Assembly, which is the legislative body of the UN–this time by nestling the right within a framework to assist the victims of sexual violence during wartime or other violent conflicts.
While Ban did not call abortion a human right, only calling for legislation, he grounds his call in the binding Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. However, because Ban cannot point to a specific abortion language in that treaty, he refers to the comments of the treaty’s “monitoring body.” Legal experts point out that the comments of treaty-monitoring bodies are merely suggestive and have no force in law.
The UN debate on abortion goes back to the founding of the global body. In the negotiations for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, chaired by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Latin American delegates attempted to get explicit abortion protection for the unborn child; it was scuttled by the Soviet Union. Their regional American Convention of Human Rights does have an abortion ban, however.
The debate heated up considerably with the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development. An explicit right to abortion was rejected there, and advocates began resorting to code language such as “reproductive health,” a term that has now appeared in hundreds of UN documents. Still, the General Assembly has never endorsed a right to abortion.
Ban’s move also highlights the sometimes-deep divide between the decisions of the General Assembly and the UN bureaucracy headed by Ban. The bureaucracy tends to go its own way and the General Assembly is too divided to stop it.