Amnesty chief calls Latin America's abortion laws violence against women
Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general, urges Argentina and others to reform draconian legislation and says human rights have deteriorated across region
Latin America’s draconian abortion policies have resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of women, said Amnesty International’s secretary general, Salil Shetty, as he called for a decisive push for legalization of the procedure across the region.
“The criminalization of abortion is an extreme form of violence against women. It doesn’t reduce abortions – it just makes them unsafe,” Shetty told the Guardian in Buenos Aires after a meeting with Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri.
In a wide-ranging interview, Shetty also warned that political polarization, economic decline and a growing disenchantment with democracy has led to a crisis of human rights across the region.
“Latin America was always seen as more advanced in the area of human rights compared to Asia or Africa, but everything has gone backwards very quickly now,” he said.
The focus of his meeting with Macri was abortion, which remains criminalized or restricted in every Latin American country except for Cuba and Uruguay.
Six countries ban abortion in all circumstances, while nine others allow it only when the woman’s life is in danger.
Argentina is one of several states in the region currently reassessing such stringent rules, and last week the country’s national congress held its first ever debate on subject – opening the way for what is likely to be a drawn-out process towards decriminalization.
The Amnesty chief argued that abortion bans only push women to seek unsafe clandestine terminations, a major cause of maternal mortality.
“In the last 25 years more than 3,000 women have died in Argentina alone as a result of clandestine procedures,” Shetty said. “As the debate goes on, women are dying,” Shetty said.
Macri has said he is personally opposed to legalization but allowed parliamentarians from his centre-right PRO party to vote according to their conscience on a recently introduced bill which would allow terminations in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.
But with half a million clandestine abortions carried out in Argentina each year, Shetty argued that neutrality is not enough – and called on Macri to publicly support decriminalization.
“You have a legal obligation to protect the health and the rights of women – you can’t take a neutral position,” Shetty said he told Macri.
Shetty gave a bleak assessment of the human rights situation in Latin America, pointing to Venezuela’s ever-worsening humanitarian crisis and runaway violence in Brazil.
“In Venezuela you have the most extreme suffering,”he said. “A country which had a good standard of living came crashing down in the space of two or three years. It’s unimaginable the speed at which things can go wrong,” said Shetty.
Shetty also expressed concern at growing political polarization in Brazil, where presidential elections this year will take place against the backdrop of what has been described as the biggest corruption scandal in history.
Shetty said that the murder last month of Marielle Franco – a tireless advocate for the rights of Afro-Brazilians, LGBT people, women and low-income groups – was a sobering reminder of the risk undertaken by human rights activists in the region.
But he said that ordinary Brazilians were bearing the brunt of violence between drug gangs and security forces. President Michel Temer recently put the military in charge of security in Rio de Janeiro, following an escalation in violent street crime and clashes between drug gangs.
Activists have expressed concern that the “intervention” may itself lead to more deaths, especially as Brazil’s security forces have been implicated in extrajudicial killings. “A large number of ordinary people are losing their lives or being harassed on a daily basis because of this internecine war,” Shetty said.
With presidential elections slated for six countries in the region this year, Shetty warned that – as elsewhere in the world – the temptations of populism are growing stronger amid disenchantment with a democratic system that has failed to provide continued economic security.
“The political model has not led to inclusive or accountable governments and the economic model has left very significant populations behind,” he said.
The Amnesty chief said that he was also worried about Colombia’s stumbling peace process with Farc rebels – which put an end to 52 years of civil war, but remains deeply unpopular.
Many Colombians bitterly opposed the deal – which was initially rejected in a referendum – while former fighters are frustrated by the glacial pace of the deal’s implementation and fearful for their own safety. More than 50 former guerrillas or family members have been killed since the pact was signed, while more than 1,200 former rebels are believed have taken up arms with criminal groups.
“The only kind of real hope in the midst of all this madness was Colombia where at least there was some hope, but the situation there has also become very fragile,” he said.