The Malta Independent 1 December 2022, Thursday
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Council of Europe calls for Malta to repeal abortion blanket ban, ensure justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia

Tuesday, 15 February 2022, 10:21 Last update: about 11 months ago

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, has called on Malta to repeal its blanket ban on abortion, saying that it puts women’s right to health at risk, and said that it is high-time that justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia is done.

The report on Mijatović’s visit to Malta carried out in October 2021, with recommendations on safeguarding media freedom and ensuring the safety of journalists, protecting the lives and dignity of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and strengthening women’s rights was published on Monday.

Malta’s blanket ban on abortion puts women’s right to health at serious risk, the Commissioner said.

It also endangers other rights including their right to life, to be free from torture and ill-treatment and from discrimination, and their right to privacy, she added.

“It is time for the authorities to repeal provisions criminalising abortion, develop comprehensive regulation of women’s access to legal and safe abortion and improve the availability of sexual and reproductive health services.”

In response to this part of the report, the government said: "Whilst Malta is fully committed to providing access to reproductive healthcare, and is working to improve these services, including the strengthening of comprehensive sexual health education, through a multisectoral approach, Malta does not agree with the interpretation that the right to sexual and reproductive health services includes an intrinsic right to abortion. It remains Member State competence to decide whether abortion should form part of a range of sexual and reproductive health services at a national level, in accordance with the ICPD Programme of Action."

Moreover, the authorities should guarantee equality for all women in the enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights, including by providing evidence-based information and mandatory comprehensive sexuality education, ensuring the availability and affordability of modern contraceptive services, and safeguarding access to health care in the light of refusals to provide care on grounds of conscience, the Commissioner recommended.

Turning to the media landscape and freedom of speech, Mijatovic said that “the authorities must continue their investigations to identify everyone involved in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and ensure that those responsible are held accountable and that justice is done. The top priority for the government should be to set in motion vital legislative and other reforms to fully implement the recommendations of the public inquiry report which found the state responsible for her assassination, and to comply with international standards.”

“The effective involvement of civil society in this process and ensuring accountability and transparency at all stages are key,” Mijatović said.

The Commissioner recommended a co-ordinated response to threats and attacks against journalists, including online, and increased awareness-raising among law enforcement agents.

She also warned that the adoption of a new media law to provide greater protection for journalists should not result in state interference in the regulation of their profession and invites the media community to adopt an effective system of self-regulation.

In addition, she recommended the enactment of legislation to counter the use of vexatious lawsuits against journalists and the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act.

Regarding asylum and migration, the Commissioner stressed the need to step up Malta’s capacities and ensure effective co-ordination of search and rescue operations. “Disagreements with other member states about disembarkation responsibilities should never be allowed to put human rights – including the right to life – at risk or exempt the authorities from their non-refoulement obligations.”

The Commissioner underlined that Libya is not a safe place for disembarkation and calls on the Maltese authorities to review their co-operation with the Libyan authorities to curb irregular migration, which is of grave concern in so far as it leads to returns of refugees and migrants to Libya or contributes to other human rights violations.

“Such co-operation activities must be suspended until clear guarantees of their human rights compliance are in place. Moreover, accountability must be ensured for any returns to Libya occurring as a result of action by the Maltese authorities.”

The Commissioner further called on the authorities to prevent the detention of vulnerable asylum seekers and migrants and any arbitrary detention, to invest in alternatives to detention, and immediately end the detention of migrant children.

“Every detained migrant must be treated with dignity, with strong safeguards to protect them from ill-treatment or abuse. Independent monitoring bodies and NGOs should have unhindered access to detention places.”

Additional efforts are also needed to improve reception conditions and prevent homelessness or destitution among those no longer accommodated in reception centres and to ensure that unaccompanied minors effectively benefit from the protection granted by law to all children, she said.

To enhance women’s rights and gender equality, the Commissioner recommended further reforms, including the adoption of the Equality Act and the Human Rights and Equality Commission Act without delay.

These should be complemented by a comprehensive policy to overcome patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men, and increased support to independent human rights structures to carry out awareness-raising activities promoting gender equality and women’s rights, the Commissioner said.

The authorities must also address women’s disadvantaged position in the labour market and reverse the growing gender pay gap in Malta.

Welcoming the new legislation on ensuring gender balance in Parliament, the Commissioner called for further enhancing women’s access to political and public leadership and decision-making positions. 

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