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Government rejects UN condemnation of women’s rights violations in Northern Ireland

The UK Government has rejected the findings of the damning report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which found that Northern Ireland’s near-total prohibition on abortion violates women’s rights. Humanists UK has expressed its dismay at the Government’s response, which it believes not only fails to adequately address CEDAW’s concerns, but also fails to acknowledge its own responsibility for ensuring the realisation of human rights, including women’s rights, in Northern Ireland.

The report, which was published last week, states that such restrictions constitute both ‘grave’ and ‘systemic’ violations of rights under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. These violations, CEDAW says, cause Northern Ireland women seeking an abortion physical and mental anguish and thus constitute gender-based violence against women.

The UK Government has not accepted these findings and stated that abortion access is a matter for the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland, which has not sat since early 2017.

The argument that it is not the UK Government’s responsibility to address rights violations related to abortion services was already dismissed in the CEDAW report, as not being in accordance with international law. CEDAW states ‘the UK argues that following the devolution of health and criminal law to NI, Westminster cannot amend NI’s criminal law, including revising abortion laws. The Committee recalls that under international law of State responsibility, all acts of State organs are attributable to the State [i.e. the UK itself, not Northern Ireland]. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides in article 27 that a party to a treaty may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as a justification for its failure to perform it.’

Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan commented, ‘We are hugely disappointed that the UK Government has obstinately refused to take on board the comments and recommendations of the the UN, and has once again attempted to unload the burden of responsibility onto the Northern Ireland Assembly. Whether the Assembly is in operation or not, or if abortion is a devolved matter or not, the responsibility for upholding human rights across the United Kingdom rests with the UK Government. It is its responsibility to ensure that all violations are redressed.’

Humanists UK intervened  in a case before the Supreme Court, brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) against the Northern Ireland Government, which focused on whether abortion should be legal in the cases of (i) women with pregnancies where the foetus cannot survive birth, (ii) women whose pregnancies arise from rape or incest, and (iii) women with serious malformation of the foetus. A judgement on this case is pending.


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan on or 07951 176 245 or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 07470 395090.

Read the report from CEDAW:

Read the UK Government’s response:

Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in other cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. Humanists UK’s policies and approach to abortion are informed by its ethical position which supports a woman’s right to dignity and personal autonomy and accordingly to access a safe and lawful abortion with appropriate secular counselling and after-care should she choose to do so. Humanists UK has successfully campaigned to oppose changes to the law in England and Wales that seek to restrict access to abortion. It is a member of the Voice for Choice coalition, the We Trust Women campaign, and the Back Off campaign. Its section Northern Ireland Humanists is a member of the Trust Women coalition, coordinated by Alliance for Choice. In September 2017 Humanists UK spoke out against the restrictive abortion laws enforced in many countries around the world as part of the 36th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association:

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.

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