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UN committee 'concerned' about Northern Ireland's 'highly restrictive' abortion laws, Troubles legacy and Pat Finucane review

By David Young

Published 24/07/2015

UN committee 'is concerned about the highly restricted circumstances in which termination of pregnancy is permitted under the law'
UN committee 'is concerned about the highly restricted circumstances in which termination of pregnancy is permitted under the law'
Alliance for Choice supporters gather outside Musgrave police station in Belfast City centre
Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life protesting outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast
A United Nations committee has criticised Northern Ireland's abortion laws

A United Nations committee has expressed concern about Northern Ireland's "highly restrictive" abortion laws.

The report by the UN's Human Rights Committee also raised concern over the stalled efforts to introduce new mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

The committee, consisting of 18 independent international experts, made the observations in a wider assessment of a range of rights issues in the United Kingdom

Abortion is only legal in Northern Ireland in circumstances where the life or long-term health of the expectant mother is at risk.

The UN committee said: "The committee is concerned about the highly restricted circumstances in which termination of pregnancy is permitted under the law in Northern Ireland, and about the severe criminal sanctions for unlawful abortion, thus putting women's life and health at risk and forcing them to travel in order to seek abortion."

It added: "The State party should, as a matter of priority, amend its legislation on abortion in Northern Ireland with a view to providing for additional exceptions to the legal ban on abortion, including in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality. The State party should also ensure access to information on abortion, contraception and sexual and reproductive health options."

The committee welcomed the new mechanisms proposed for dealing with the past in last year's Stormont House Agreement between the parties in the powersharing Executive and the British and Irish governments.

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However, those plans are currently under threat due to a vexed political impasse in Belfast over implementing the agreement.

The committee said it remained concerned about the "quality and pace of the process of promoting accountability" in relation to the Troubles and about the "absence of a comprehensive framework for dealing with conflict-related serious human rights violations".

The committee also expressed concern about:

  • allegations about the independence and effectiveness of the Police Ombudsman's ability to investigate historical cases of police misconduct.
     
  • the fact the Police Service of Northern Ireland's new Legacy Investigation Branch, which has taken over from the axed Historical Enquiries Team (HET), may "lack sufficient independence and adequate resources".
     
  • delays in the functioning of the coroner's inquest system in legacy cases
     
  • whether a Government review of the loyalist murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, which stopped short of a public inquiry, satisfied the effective investigation standards required by the UN.

The committee recommended that action was taken to address its concerns, including consideration of launching an "official inquiry" into the Finucane case.

Other Northern Ireland specific observations in the report included expressions of concern that the budget of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had been cut and over the ongoing failure to introduce a Bill of Rights for the region.

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