Friday, September 28, 2012

Right to Information Victory in Colombia

(My thanks to IntLawGrrls for the opportunity to contribute this introductory post)

On September 11, 2012, the Constitutional Court of Colombia held that the Inspector General of Colombia (in Spanish, Procurador) and two of his deputies had failed in their constitutional obligation to provide truthful and accurate information on sexual and reproductive rights. Shortly thereafter, and within the limited time-frame for rectification outlined by the Court, the Inspector General held a press conference to correct the false information.
In 2011 we, a group of 1279 Colombian women, filed a tutela (a mechanism by which private citizens can bring alleged violations of their fundamental rights) alleging that our constitutional right to information had been violated when the office of the Inspector General published and disseminated false information about emergency contraception, abortion, and sex education.
The Constitutional Court found that the Inspector General and his deputies had, in violation of their legal obligations, issued misleading information on sexual and reproductive rights. For instance, they had stated, contrary to all current medical evidence, that emergency contraception is abortive, and that the use of misoprostol, an abortifacient approved by the WHO to perform safe abortions, was a danger to women and girls’ health.
The Court’s decision makes clear that public officials have an obligation under the law to provide impartial and complete information, irrespective of their personal, political or religious views. Their attempts to undermine women’s and girls’ rights by providing incomplete and false information were held to be in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Colombian Constitution. This decision ensures that Colombian women and girls will be provided truthful and accurate information on sexual and reproductive issues and are enabled and empowered to make free and informed decisions based thereon. Citizens have to be able to trust the information provided by representatives of the State, and even more so when it comes from the Inspector General’s Office, which is the institution responsible for ensuring the full protection of human rights in Colombia.
The case had been filed in the context of a series of declarations and actions by the Procuraduría, which not only failed to recognize the right to a legal abortion, but also the very existence of sexual and reproductive rights. The most recent manifestation of this threat to sexual and reproductive rights has taken the form of a criminal suit by Deputy Inspector General Hoyos against me personally in response to the allegations of the 1279 women in the tutela. She claims that these allegations, on which the Court has just ruled in our favour, are untrue and defamatory. Deputy Inspector General Hoyos has failed to retract the criminal complaint against me and, ominously, continues with her candidature to fill a seat on the Constitutional Court, the seat of the Judge who authored the decision ordering her to rectify her false statements. Similarly, the Inspector General continues with his campaign for reelection for a further four years.

In response to these and other events, including a shooting at the Women’s Link Bogotá office during working hours, the international community has called on the Colombian government to investigate the criminal activity, effectively protect activists, and safeguard reproductive rights. Thus, for example, the American Bar Association issued a public letter to the President of Colombia expressing concern that a criminal prosecution against a human rights defender could amount to an attack on the independence of the legal profession.
While the criminal case against me is, obviously, worrying, it is an example of the many means, legal and other, used to harass, intimidate and ultimately, stultify the work of defenders of sexual and reproductive rights. However, this cannot overshadow the gains we have made and the opportunities for advancement that this new decision provides. Full implementation of the Court’s decision and its potential as a comparative law argument, will ensure that women and girls can access sexual and reproductive health services and make informed decisions in the fulfillment of their life plans, not only in Colombia but also in other countries where a lack of information prevents women from accessing legal reproductive health options.

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