Council of Europe human rights chief urges Malta to stop criminalising abortion

Women’s access to sexual and reproductive health care should be ensured, including safe and legal abortion, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner says • Migrants should not be returned to Libya

Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović
Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović

Maltese women should have access to sexual and reproductive health care that includes safe and legal abortion, the Council of Europe human rights chief said.

COE Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović welcomed the developing debate on abortion but said criminalisation stigmatises women and puts their health at risk.

She was commenting after visiting Malta between 11 and 16 October as part of a review of the human rights situation in the country.

Malta has a total ban on abortions and is the country with the most restrictive laws among Council of Europe member states. The Commissioner called on the authorities to urgently repeal provisions criminalising abortion and ensure all women have access to sexual and reproductive health care.

“The fact that abortion is still criminalised and stigmatised not only puts Maltese women’s health at risk, but also affects their equal enjoyment of other human rights,” she said.

Mijatović called on the Maltese authorities to step up measures to enhance equality between women and men.

“In order to improve gender equality, the authorities must put in place comprehensive measures to overcome prejudices and traditional practices based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for men and women. Awareness-raising among the general population and the introduction of mandatory comprehensive sexuality education are key,” Mijatović said.

She welcomed the recent adoption of the law aimed at achieving gender balance in parliament and encouraged the authorities to take further steps to advance women’s representation in leadership roles and decision-making positions in political bodies at all levels.

The COE Human Rights Commissioner visited closed and open reception centres for migrants
The COE Human Rights Commissioner visited closed and open reception centres for migrants

Human rights of asylum seekers

Mijatović stressed that the human rights of those in distress at sea should never be put at risk.

She said the authorities should ensure that their actions do not lead, either directly or indirectly, to returns to Libya, which is not a safe place for disembarkation.

The Commissioner visited the Safi Detention Centre and two open centres in Hal Far, where she spoke with representatives of the responsible authorities and with a number of asylum seekers and migrants.

While noting the recent efforts made to improve living conditions in these centres, the Commissioner was struck by the “deplorable situation” in Block A in the Safi Detention Centre.

She strongly urged the authorities to take immediate action to ensure dignified conditions for all those currently held there.

Although the number of those detained, including children, was significantly reduced recently, the Commissioner observed that uncertainties remain about the legal grounds and the safeguards related to some detention measures. “I call on the authorities to focus on investing in alternatives to detention and to ensure that no children or vulnerable persons are detained.”

The Commissioner also stressed the need to ensure independent monitoring of places of detention as well as unhindered access for NGOs to provide support and assistance to those detained.

During her visit the Commissioner met with Prime Minister Robert Abela and several other ministers. She also met Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg, Ombudsman Anthony C. Mifsud, and representatives of national human rights structures, as well as with members of civil society, media organisations and international counterparts.

The report on the Commissioner’s visit will be published in due course.