Abortion debate in Malta should start, says human rights commissioner

Council of Europe human rights commissioner Nils Muižnieks says Malta must step up efforts to enhance protection of women’s and migrants’ rights

Council of Europe human rights commissioner Nils Muznieks
Council of Europe human rights commissioner Nils Muznieks

The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner has called for a public debate on abortion in Malta.

Underlining that Malta is among the most restrictive member states of the Council of Europe in this field, Commissioner Nils Muižnieks called for a public debate on abortion and the infringements of women’s human rights resulting from its prohibition.

“Every individual or organisation should have the possibility to speak up in support of women’s rights without fearing stigma or negative repercussions,” he said.

The Commissioner, who is in Malta on a four-day visit to meet stakeholders and migrants’ rights campaigners, recommended decriminalising abortion and ensuring access to safe and legal abortion care.

Muižnieks welcomed the authorisation in 2016 of the emergency contraceptive pill and urged the authorities to ensure that the possibility for pharmacists to refuse to sell the ‘MAP’ on grounds of conscience, does not compromise in practice the effective accessibility of those means.

“The fact that the authorisation of emergency contraception results from a grass-roots campaign is a signal that Maltese society has evolved on these issues. However, I note that abortion remains a taboo issue not debated publicly,” he added.

Muižnieks also welcomed the transposition into domestic law of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Muižnieks visited Malta’s biggest shelter for women and children victims of domestic violence, which is run by the Dar Mehrba Bik Foundation. Praising the efforts made by the staff and the volunteers to accommodate their residents in a secure, peaceful and homely environment, he called on the government to allocate more financial support to these organisations and to address the shortage of places in shelters.

But he was concerned by the low participation of women in public life and their under-representation in decision-making positions in economic life.

“Fostering women’s participation is not just about developing child care services or introducing quotas; it also requires questioning men’s roles, including in family matters. A more balanced sharing of household duties and responsibilities needs to be promoted by a whole set of measures, starting from a more than one day-long paid paternity leave.”

On migrants, the commissioner welcomed the end of migrants’ automatic detention policy. He noted that a number of refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection who would prefer living in the community have no access to private housing, in spite of the fact that many of them work, because of very high rents.

“There is a severe problem of access to housing, not only for migrants but also for low-income Maltese households, which needs to be urgently addressed by the government.”

While noting Malta’s high refugee status recognition rate, the commissioner expressed concern about the frequent lack of legal motivation and of consistency of the Refugee Appeal Boards’ decisions, as well as the fact that most successful asylum seekers are granted subsidiary protection rather than refugee status.

“This is particularly worrying because beneficiaries of subsidiary protection are not entitled to family reunification under Maltese law. Family reunification being an essential factor of integration, I urge the Maltese authorities to put an end to this form of unfair distinction.”

Muižnieks also discussed the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and media freedom with media professionals.

He called on the authorities to conduct an effective investigation into this tragic case and to keep informed the victim’s family and the public about the progress of this investigation.

Underlining the crucial watchdog role played by the press in a democracy, Muižnieks stressed the need to guarantee a conducive environment for media freedom.