UN Committee against Torture Urges the Czech Republic to Investigate Alleged Coercive Sterilisation of Romani Women

Cristi Mihalache1

In its conclusion and recommendations on the Czech Republic, re-leased on May 13, 2004, following the review of the Czech Republic's compliance with the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punish-ment ("the Convention"), the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) expressed concern about, inter alia, "allegations regarding some incidents of uninformed and involuntary sterilizations of Roma women, as well as the government's inability to investigate due to the insufficient identification of the individual com-plainants". The Committee recommended that the State party "investigate claims of involuntary sterilizations, using medical and personnel records and urge the complainants, to the degree feasible, to as-sist in substantiating the allegations". The full text of the Committee's Conclusions and Recommendations on Czech Republic can be found on the Internet at: http://www.ohchr.org.

The 32nd session of the CAT, held May 3-21, 2004 in Geneva provided an opportunity for the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) to raise its concerns regarding allegations of coercive sterilisations of Romani women in the Czech Republic. The ERRC sent written comments and documentation for con-sideration by the Committee during its review of Czech Republic's report presented by the govern-mental delegation of the country.

Throughout 2003, the issue of post-1990 coercive sterilisations of Romani women in Slovakia received extensive attention.2 In light of similarities and pos-sible continuities in both the Czech and Slovak medi-cal systems with the Czechoslovak health care sys-tem, as well as the serious and similar problems of racism in both successor states to the former Czecho-slovakia, the ERRC has believed that the issue mer-its research attention also in the Czech Republic. Thus, during 2003, the ERRC undertook a number of field missions to the Czech Republic to determine whether practices of coercive sterilisation had con-tinued after 1990, and if they were ongoing to the present. The conclusions of that research indicate that there is very significant cause for concern that to the present day, Romani women in the Czech Republic have been subjected to coercive sterilisations, and that Romani women are at high risk in the Czech Republic of being subjected to sterilisation absent fully informed consent.

Based on its research in 2003, which found that a number of Romani women have been coercively sterilised in recent years in the Czech Republic, the ERRC submission to the UN Committee Against Torture noted: 

  • Cases in which consent has reportedly not been provided at all, in either oral or written form, prior to the operation; 
  • Cases in which consent was secured during deliv-ery or shortly before delivery, during advanced stages of labour, i.e. in circumstances in which the mother is in great pain and/or under intense stress;
  • Cases in which consent appears to have been pro-vided (i) on a mistaken understanding of terminol-ogy used, (ii) after the provision of apparently manipulative information and/or (iii) absent expla-nations of consequences and/or possible side ef-fects of sterilisation, or adequate information on alternative methods of contraception; 
  • Cases in which officials put pressure on Romani women to undergo sterilisation, including through the use of financial incentives or threats to with-hold social benefits;
  • Cases in which explicit racial motive appears to have played a role during doctor-patient consultations.

ERRC observed that coercive sterilisation is a very serious form of human rights abuse. Coercive sterili-sation is a violation of the bodily integrity of the vic-tims and can cause severe psychological and emotional harm. In addition, coercive sterilisation restricts or nullifies the reproductive ability of a woman, and does so without her having been able to participate fully in a decision of such evident import, the consequences of which are in many cases irreversible.

As a result of the foregoing, the ERRC main-tained that instances of coercive sterilisation con-travene Article 1(1) and/or Article 16 provisions of the Convention.

The submission features a number of recommen-dations, requesting that the Committee direct the Czech authorities to undertake the following: 

  • Establish an independent commission of inquiry in-vestigating the allegations and complaints of coer-cive sterilisations. Thoroughly investigate reported cases of coercive sterilisations, and make available – and widely publicised – procedures for womenwho believe they may have been abusively steri-lised to report the issue. These procedures should ensure privacy rights, as well as rights related to effective remedy. Provide justice to all victims of coercive sterilisations, including those coercively sterilised under communism. Conduct ex-officio in-vestigations to ascertain the full extent of coercive sterilisations in the post-communist period.
  • Review the domestic legal order in the Czech Re-public to ensure that it is in harmony with interna-tional standards in the field of reproductive rights and provides all necessary guarantees that the right of the patient to full and informed consent to pro-cedures undertaken by medical practitioners is re-spected in all cases.
  • Promote a culture of seeking full and informed consent for all relevant medical procedures by pro-viding extensive training to medical professionals and other relevant stakeholders, as well as by con-ducting information campaigns in relevant media.
  • Undertake regular monitoring to ensure that all medical practitioners seek to attain the highest possible standards of consent when undertaking sterilisations and other invasive procedures.

In addition to action before the UN Committee Against Torture, the ERRC took the occasion of the review to hold consultative meetings with Czech civil society organisations to discuss this very sensitive issue and to try to identify modes of follow-up which will ensure that victims may seek legal (and possibly medical) remedy, while preserving the privacy and security of the victims. In the coming period, the ERRC will continue actions to ensure that victims of coercive sterilisation in the Czech Republic have access to justice.

Endnotes:

  1. Cristi Mihalache is ERRC Advocacy Officer.
  2. See for example the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, “Recommendation of the Commissioner for Human Rights Concerning Certain Aspects of Law and Practice Relating to Sterilization of Women in The Slovak Republic”, 17 October 2003.

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