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One-day International Roundtable on Maternal mortality, human rights and accountability Address by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Thursday, 2 nd September 2010 - Geneva Business Center

Organised by –
Essex University Human Rights Centre
International Initiative on Maternal Mortality and Human Rights
Clemens Nathan Research Centre
SAHAYOG (an Indian non-profit NGO promoting gender equality and women's health)
Health Equity Group ( East Africa )

Distinguished Panelists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to participate in this roundtable to discuss “Maternal mortality, human rights and accountability”. Accountability, together with equality, non-discrimination, and meaningful participation are key human rights principles. Maternal mortality often is caused by the concomitant violations of these principles.

When authorities do not meet their responsibilities to protect, promote and fulfill women's rights, the consequences of this neglect are shamefully dire and, indeed, they may be fatal. Yet if those responsible for such violations are not held accountable, there is practically no incentive to put in place remedial measures.

It is not by coincidence that the vast majority of the annual 500,000 deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth complications could be prevented with low-cost, targeted interventions, policies and services, all of which have been known by the medical profession and health systems for decades. And it is not by coincidence that improving maternal health, Goal 5 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) remains the least successful of the eight Goals.

Accountability for actions taken or omitted is therefore indispensible to ensure that gaps in policy and practice are addressed and filled. To this end, and also in view of the September 20-22 review summit of the MDGs, the support of health workers and health advocates, such as the participants to this roundtable, is absolutely crucial to set the tone of the discussion and the key elements of the international and national agendas on maternal health.

Let us not forget that only in recent years has the subject of maternal mortality and morbidity been recognized as a human rights issue. This development was due, in no small part, to the efforts of civil society advocates. Allow me to retrace the trajectory of this progress.

In June 2008, my Office, heeding the call of Paul Hunt, then Special Rapporteur on the right to everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, coordinated the first panel discussion on maternal mortality during a plenary session of the Human Right Council. That discussion prompted the Council's consideration of the human rights implications of maternal mortality.

In March 2009, 85 governments from all regions of the world reaffirmed their commitment to addressing maternal mortality as a human rights issue and called upon the Council to take action. Their pivotal joint statement, presented to the Council and delivered by New Zealand , paved the way to additional initiatives.

Three months later, the Council adopted by consensus, a historic resolution entitled, “Preventable maternal mortality and morbidity and human rights” with 67 co‑sponsors. Resolution 11/8 requested my Office to prepare a thematic study to identify the human rights dimensions of preventable MMM in the existing legal framework and recommend options for addressing the human rights dimension of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity throughout the UN system.

In June this year, at its 14 th session, my Office's report (A/HRC/14/39), was presented to the Council. It was also the subject of a panel discussion that month. The report attracted considerable public attention, prompting 108 countries to invite me to present the study to the Millennium Development Goals Review Summit.

I am pleased to inform you that the report is now on the list of official documents for the summit. Furthermore, I am seizing every opportunity to emphasize the intrinsic link between human rights and the Millennium Development Goals, using maternal mortality and morbidity as a powerful illustration. I am pleased to see that your roundtable will explore the links between human rights, maternal mortality and morbidity and the Millennium Development Goals.

Indeed, health workers have played an indispensable role in the realization of the right to health and other human rights. The medical and human rights professions share a commitment to non-discrimination and equality. To us all, every person must be equally respected, cared for and protected without distinction.

Clearly, maternal mortality and morbidity cannot be seen in isolation. In addition to the tragic loss of life, maternal mortality triggers and aggravates cycles of poverty that cause generations of suffering and despair. When mothers die, children and, especially girls, are at greater risk of dropping out of school, becoming malnourished, and simply not surviving.

A key result of the human right-based approach is that ultimately women will be able to exercise their right to participate in decision-making processes, including those affecting their sexual and reproductive health, family planning, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth and in addressing unsafe abortion.

As my Office's report makes clear, the application of a human rights approach helps us understand that maternal mortality and morbidity are not simply issues of public health but the consequence of lack of fulfillment of multiple rights. A right-based approach assists States to understand and make visible the connections among poverty, discrimination, equality and health. It also outlines their obligations to promote, protect and fulfill all human rights, including the right to health.

I applaud the organizers of today's event on focusing specifically on “Maternal mortality, human rights and accountability”. Such an approach will allow for the identification of high-risk groups, an analysis of the complex gaps in protection, and the participation and accountability of States. It will also guide the formulation of policies, the setting of budgets and the implementation of programs that will save millions of women's lives.

Thank you for your attention.