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Barbara Becker

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Colombia: Attempted Shooting of Rights Lawyer Raises Questions of Political Will

Posted: 05/13/2012 1:07 pm

Mónica Roa did not think twice when the lights went out in her office at 5:00 p.m. last Monday. Power outages are a common occurrence in Bogotá, so Roa, a well-known human rights attorney, and two colleagues continued on with their meeting. But at 6:30 pm, a bullet hit the window next to Roa's desk, sending glass shards into the room. As she raced to the stairwell to alert others, she heard another shot. Her bodyguard, who was outside when the attack happened, counted six shots in total.

In all likelihood, the attack against Roa was timed with this week's sixth anniversary of Colombia's landmark Constitutional Court decision revising one of the world's most prohibitive abortion laws. Roa, the program director of the international rights group Women's Link Worldwide, had filed the closely-watched case, which eventually liberalized the no-exceptions law and allowed for abortion in the instances of rape, incest, severe fetal abnormality, or when there is a risk to the life or physical or mental health of the woman.

The country watched spellbound as the first person to seek an abortion under the new law came forward -- an 11-year-old girl who had become pregnant after being raped by her step-father. Her grandmother had heard about the change in the law and brought her to a local hospital. Women's Link Worldwide represented the girl as the hospital, which had been unaware of the legal change, at first resisted and then sought to make sense of its new obligations.

That was just the start of the struggle to implement the law. Women's rights activists say the Constitutional Court ruling and subsequent case law are exceptionally clear in defining how the decision should be implemented. However, the country's most powerful legal officer, Procurador General and author of The Gender Ideology: Tragic Utopia or Cultural Subversion, Alejandro Ordoñez, has been throwing up roadblocks to enforcing the decision, rooted in his personal religious beliefs.

Especially unsettling is a criminal complaint filed against Roa earlier this year by Ordoñez's deputy Ilva Miriam Hoyos. The charges against Roa appear to be a response to a new case that has now reached the Constitutional Court by Women's Link Worldwide along with over 1,200 Colombian women. The case requests that the Procurador and his deputies give true and accurate information on sexual and reproductive rights, complying with the Constitution and the jurisprudence of the Court. News of the Hoyos complaint was leaked from the press office of Ordoñez, pointing to his participation in the persecution of a private citizen.

Women's Link recently launched a campaign that seeks to spotlight the need to have a Procurador who complies with his/her Constitutional duties and defends the rights of all Colombians.

Ordoñez's position is up at the end of 2012; however, he is seeking another four-year term. Ordoñez's staunch conservatism presents an embarrassing challenge for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who TIME Magazine recently featured on its cover as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. There is quiet speculation that President Santos could eventually be favored for the secretary general position at the United Nations.

The UN is clear on abortion. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has strongly disapproved of restrictive abortion laws, especially those that prohibit and criminalize abortion in all circumstances. It has also confirmed that such legislation does not prevent women from obtaining unsafe illegal abortions and has framed restrictive abortion laws as a violation of the rights to life, health and information. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Human Rights Committee, and the Committee against Torture have all expressed similar concerns.

Approximately 25 per cent of the world's population lives under legal regimes that prohibit all abortions except for those following rape or incest, as well as those necessary to save a woman's life. The 2006 high court decision launched Colombia as a regional and global beacon in advancing reproductive rights. Any harm to citizens like Roa, and any legal backsliding on women's rights would only be a poor reflection on the country and its promising leadership.

 

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