Header image for news printout

Human Rights Committee considers report of Malta

14 October 2014

The Human Rights Committee today completed its consideration of the second periodic report of Malta on its implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Presenting the report, Silvan Agius, Policy Coordinator, Ministry for Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties, said Malta had taken big leaps forward in the field of anti-discrimination, and in 2014 became the first country in the world to include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for discrimination. Civil rights in Malta were further bolstered with the adoption of the Civil Union Act in April 2014. The promotion of women’s economic independence was boosted by the provision of free childcare to all, as well as 18 weeks paid maternity leave. This year Marie Louise Coleiro Preca became the second woman to serve as President in Malta’s 50 years of independence. The minimum age of criminal responsibility had increased from nine to 14 years, and corporal punishment had been prohibited in all forms. While Malta could not recognize abortion as a legitimate measure of family planning it was committed to the protection of the right of women to control matters relating to their sexuality and the timing, number and spacing of children, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

During the discussion, Committee Experts raised several times the fact that abortion was illegal in all cases without exception, asking how Malta reconciled that with the right to life of the woman. How Malta dealt with the huge numbers of irregular migrants, processed asylum claims, alternatives to detention and conditions in detention centres were among issues discussed, as was Maltese jurisdiction at sea and specific cases of riots in detention centres and alleged returns of Eritrean and Somali migrants to Libya. Experts also asked about the use of force by officials in detention centres, measures to promote women’s participation in public life and decision-making positions, initiatives to tackle trafficking and the juvenile justice system.

In concluding remarks, Nigel Rodley, Committee Chairperson, said Malta’s progress in eliminating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity was exemplary. Other very positive developments included the ratification of the second Optional Protocol to the Covenant, the promotion of gender equality and the prohibition of corporal punishment. However, the Committee found it very difficult to understand how the only possible implication of the law on abortion could be that the State party preferred the life of the unborn child over the life of the born mother.

In concluding remarks, Mr. Agius reaffirmed Malta’s strong commitment to the promotion and protection of all human rights. Malta would look into all of the issues raised during the review and looked forward to the Committee’s concluding observations.

The delegation of Malta included representatives of the Ministry for Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties, Office of the Attorney General, Ministry for Female and Social Solidarity, Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security, Parliamentary Secretariat for the Rights of Persons with Disability and Active Ageing, Ministry for Education and Employment, Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Permanent Mission of Malta to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 3 p.m. today when it will start its review of the initial report of Montenegro (CCPR/C/MNE/1).

Report

The Committee is reviewing the second periodic report of Malta (CCPR/C/MLT/2).

Presentation of the Report

SILVAN AGIUS, Policy Coordinator, Ministry for Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties of Malta, said fundamental human rights values were deeply rooted in the building blocks of Maltese society and the Maltese legal system ensured that the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were fully enforceable. Malta had ratified the Covenant with reservations to ensure it could achieve its overall goal, and in practice often adhered more closely to the provisions of the Covenant than its reservations implied, noted Mr. Agius. He outlined developments since the submission of the report in July 2012 which included the ratification of the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide and of the Council of Europe Convention on Combating Violence against Women, better known as the Istanbul Convention.

Malta had taken big leaps forward in the field of anti-discrimination, and in 2014 Malta became the first country in the world to include gender identity as grounds of protection when its constitution was amended to include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for discrimination. Civil rights in Malta were further bolstered in April 2014 when Parliament approved the Civil Union Act which meant all rights under the Marriage Act applied to civil partners with the sole exclusion of religious weddings. Foreign same-sex registered partners were recognized as civil partners, and adoptions by civil-union partners were also regulated the same way as those by spouses.

One of the biggest challenges Malta faced was heavy influxes of irregular migration from North Africa, particularly since 2002. Malta’s asylum recognition rate constantly exceeded 50 per cent in view of the situation in the countries from which the asylum seekers originated, particularly in the Horn of Africa. To date 67,000 persons had been rescued by the Italian Operation Mare Nostrum including over 6,500 unaccompanied children: those numbers were clear testimony to the humanitarian crisis which was resulting in an unacceptable high number of deaths at sea. As a country at the forefront of the tragedy Malta was trying with all possible means to address the problem, but Malta, with its limited size and resources, could not be left to deal with it alone – it was a global problem. Malta was pleased that both the International Organization of Migration and the United Nations Refugee Agency were highlighting Malta’s plight and calling for more solidarity.

Malta had introduced reforms to its detention policy in respect of irregular migrants in order to comply with the European Union Directive on Reception Conditions and would amend its immigration legislation to introduce reasons for which an asylum seeker may be detained and to enable the detained to challenge their detention. Regarding claims of poor conditions in detention centres, Mr. Aguis said regular maintenance to improve facilities was being conducted, adequate food, clothing and cleaning materials were provided and assistance was provided to help potential asylum seekers with application processes. Malta would continue to extend its full assistance to asylum-seekers and beneficiaries of international protection, and indeed last month welcomed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

Malta had launched a series of initiatives to curb violence against women which formed a two-year awareness-raising project entitled ‘Forms of Violence in Malta – a gender perspective’. Women’s economic independence was a priority for the Government, which provided free childcare to all, as well as tax credits, 18 weeks paid maternity leave and measures to combat pay and career discrimination in the workplace. Malta was working to ensure women’s equal access to decision-making and promoting the participation of young women in politics, and this year appointed Marie Louise Coleiro Preca as the President of the Republic, the second woman to serve as President in Malta’s 50 years of independence. Mr. Agius also noted that four out of six of Malta’s elected Members of the European Parliament were women.

Malta continued to sustain that the right to life extended to the unborn child. It believed that human life began at conception and therefore considered the termination of pregnancy through procedures of induced abortion at any stage of gestation and for whatever reason as an infringement of that right. Malta therefore could not recognize abortion or any other form of termination of pregnancy as a legitimate measure of family planning. Malta was committed to the promotion of sexual and reproductive health and the protection of the right of women to control matters relating to their sexuality and the timing, number and spacing of children, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Malta recognized the importance of providing information on effective forms of family planning to women and young girls. Quality health care was offered before, during and after pregnancy, free of charge to entitled persons.

On promoting children’s rights, Mr. Agius said Malta had increased the minimum age of criminal responsibility from nine to 14 years, and had amended the Criminal Code to abolish corporal punishment. Malta was working hard to ensure that social policy towards persons with disabilities addressed specific needs and to that end had set up the Parliamentary Secretary for Disability Rights and Active Ageing. The new Guardianship Act provided for the appointment of a guardian to help persons in need by safeguarding their personal well-being and property. In the coming months Malta would launch its first National Disability Policy, to be followed by a national strategy. Mr. Agius also informed the Committee about public consultations on establishing a national human rights institution under the working title of the Human Rights and Equality Commission.

Summary of the Replies to the List of Issues

SILVAN AGIUS, Policy Coordinator, Ministry for Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties of Malta, summarizing the written replies submitted ahead of today’s review in response to the Committee’s List of Issues, noted that some matters raised in the list had already been addressed in his opening statement. He spoke about progress made in other areas such as combating manifestations of racism and xenophobia through measures such as training and education to police officers, especially those on border guard duties. Bill 53, currently in Parliament, would increase punishments by one to two degrees when an offence was aggravated or motivated on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, race, language, national or ethnic origin and religion or belief, among others. He spoke about measures to tackle bullying and harassment in Maltese schools, and also measures to support trans and intersex children.

No country was immune to the human rights violation and problem that was the use of violence against women and children, including domestic violence, said Mr. Agius, speaking about a specialized court system to deal with cases of domestic violence and increased sensitivity towards the needs of victims. Malta was committed to adopting a strategy to tackle gender-based and domestic violence, including by improving the gathering of statistics, imposition of sanctions and provision of remedies.

On the right to life, prohibition of torture, right to liberty and security and the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, Malta continued to respect its international obligations and had provided details of action taken in relation to cases in Malta in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 to the Committee. Furthermore Malta reiterated its position that persons rescued at sea were not subject to Maltese jurisdiction but had knowingly chosen to be rescued by the Maltese authorities rather than remain in a dangerous distress situation. Thousands of lives had been saved in the Central Mediterranean as a result of operations by the Armed Forces of Malta, he noted.

The principle of non-refoulement was safeguarded by the Refugee Act, and in particular all irregular migrants were informed of their rights in booklets and information sessions given in the main languages of the countries of origin of the asylum seekers, said Mr. Agius. Unaccompanied migrants had the same rights as Maltese minors, including the right to attend State schools, and were protected with a Care Order under the Children and Young Person’s Act.

Mr. Agius also spoke about anti-trafficking prevention efforts, such as the publication of the first Anti-Trafficking National Action Plan in October 2011 and awareness-raising and training sessions on the issue. The Police Vice Squad had formed a specialized Prostitution and Human Trafficking Unit which had led to an increase in suspected perpetrators being brought to court and improved identification of trafficking cases.

Questions by the Experts

An Expert said it had been a long time since the Committee’s last review of Malta in 1993, and at that time it was very modest in its adoption of recommendations, suggesting just four. It was pleased to note that one recommendation had been adopted over the intervening 20 years, and that was on the withdrawal of the reservation to the Second Optional Protocol of the Covenant, on the death penalty. However, it was clear that a large number of positive developments had taken place in Malta over the last 20 years. In general concerns remained about the areas which the State party said “its position remained unchanged”.

The Expert commended the State party for taking steps in establishing a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles. He asked whether Malta had considered the withdrawal of any of its six reservations to the Covenant and reviewed the need to maintain those reservations. In particular, what about the reservation under the right to freedom of expression of civil servants and of aliens, a right that was a fundamental tenet of any democracy? All should strive for a world in which all international human rights treaties were ratified without reservations, as States said in consensus at the World Conference of 1993, commented the Expert.

Malta had sent a large and comprehensive delegation given the small size of the country, commended another Expert, who thanked the State party for representing so many different areas of Government. Malta had made progress in combating manifestations of racism and xenophobia, she continued, such as amendments to the Criminal Code, training for police officers, and the passing of the First Reading of Bill 53 in Parliament.

Data provided by the State party showed that there was an improvement in the number of women in public life and decision-making positions, such as in Parliament, the private and public sector, the judiciary and even Mayors, with 10 per cent now being women. The figures were encouraging, said an Expert, but said there were still 10 times as many men as women in Parliament. She asked whether the new provision of 18 weeks of maternity leave was the case in practice.

The eradication of discrimination towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, and measures to prevent bullying and harassment in schools, particularly of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, was raised by an Expert who asked for specific examples of measures taken in schools, such as by teachers.

Response by the Delegation

Regarding the establishment of a national human rights institution, a delegate said they were currently studying the various models of such institutions around the world and taking on views of all stakeholders, including the Council of Europe. The Expert also spoke about research being carried out into the production of a national action plan against racism and xenophobia.

Formal and public consultation systems had been established to allow non-governmental organizations to contribute to all bills put before Parliament, and the authorities also provided financial and other support to civil society organizations, confirmed a delegate.

Questions from the Experts

An Expert asked about the use of force by State officials, and what disciplinary measures were taken in response to excessive force, particularly with respect to protests and riots in detention centres for migrants and reports that tear gas and rubber bullets were used, and that some detainees were punched and struck by police batons after they had already been handcuffed.

Under Maltese law abortion was generally considered a crime and was illegal in all cases. The Criminal Code provided for criminal punishment of the medical staff as well as the woman seeking abortion. There was no exception when the life or the health of the woman was at risk because Malta believed the right to life extended to the unborn child. How could that be reconciled with the protection of the right to life of the woman? How could the prohibition of abortion stemming from rape or incest be reconciled with the right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment?

An Expert also said it was not sufficient to just ‘recognize the importance of dissemination of information on safe family planning measures’ but to actually provide it, asking how Malta addressed teenage pregnancies. Could Malta provide data on the number of complications stemming from illegal and clandestine abortions? The Expert also asked about measures to tackle domestic violence and investigate cases.

Malta returned four Eritrean migrants to Libya in 2010 and 45 Somali nationals to Libya in 2013, stating that the persons in question were never on Maltese territory but were taken straight from their boat. Malta has also stated that persons rescued at sea were not subject to Maltese jurisdiction. Sources claimed Maltese authorities were involved in the return of Eritrean nationals to Libya in a way that amounted to their collective expulsion. What was Malta’s actual position on upholding the principle of non refoulement? What role did Maltese authorities play in the two cases cited?

Malta’s automatic detention of migrants had no exceptions, whether on grounds of age or anything else. Any child, whether accompanied or not, was automatically detained. There was no consideration of their special situation in detention centres and children and adults were often detained together. Detention should be used as a measure of last resort, she emphasized.

The State only specified a maximum length of detention for ‘irregular migrants’ in its policy documents and in practice the detention was inconsistent with the right to liberty. The period of 18 months of administrative detention was contrary to the article on proportionality. The non-governmental organization ICJ had said it considered the immigration policy of Malta to be incompatible with the Covenant, the Expert noted.

Malta habitually detained about 1,500 migrants every year who reached the country by boat without permission or “irregularly”, recalled an Expert. Children, accompanied or not, were present in significant numbers. Those individuals were migrants and asylum seekers, usually from Somalia, Eritrea and other sub-Saharan African countries, who reached Europe escaping persecution or in pursuit of a decent life. The last step of that journey was of course the crossing of the Mediterranean, usually in crowded vessels without enough food and water, before they reached Malta or were saved at sea by the Armed Forces of Malta. Could the delegation provide more information on its procedures for migrants and asylum seekers?

Response by the Delegation

Following a 2008 study into public perceptions on domestic violence by the Commission on Domestic Violence, a programme was launched to empower victims and train care workers. There were five women’s shelters for victims and their children to stay in. Social workers had a domestic violence agency which also provided psychological support such as counselling. There had been no cases of domestic violence brought to the courts, confirmed a delegate.

The Head of the Delegation took the floor to clarify Malta’s position on abortion. The Government of Malta respected all of its obligations, including international obligations, he reiterated. In cases where the life of the mother was at risk clinicians worked on a case-by-case basis to try to save the life of both the child and mother. Interventions that may save the mother but could possibly lead to the death of the child could take place but the law forbade any intervention that directly resulted in the death of the child. The right to life was an inherent right of every human being, including the unborn child. Termination of pregnancies at any stage of gestation for whatever reason was an infringement of that right. Malta could not recognize abortion as a legitimate method of family planning, he reiterated.

Family planning services were offered along with safe motherhood programmes and also assisted conception, treatment of reproductive tract infections, treatment of HIV/AIDS and treatment of reproductive cancers. A Genito-urinary Medicine (GUM) Clinic provided confidential testing, diagnosis, treatment and counselling for sexually and non-sexually transmitted diseases, the delegate noted.

On alleged cases of excessive use of force in places of detention, a delegate confirmed that riots did indeed happen in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Following the first riot in 2011 an enquiry was launched. After another riot in 2012 which led to the death of a Malian migrant, criminal action was taken against the law enforcement officials responsible. The last riot was at Lister in February 2014, and only minor injuries were recorded. Although rubber bullets were used they were fired towards the air and not towards the migrants, being used as an intimidatory tool.

Malta was gradually introducing reforms to its detention system. It was theoretically true that migrants could be detained for a maximum period of 18 months, but the Member State was obliged to conduct periodic reviews of the need for detention. In 2014 around 250 people had already been released from detention; 159 people were released after less than 15 days of detention so the system was gradually changing.

A delegate affirmed that Malta had looked into the six reservations it held to the Covenant and there was a strong will to address at least some of the reservations with the goal of lifting those it was practically possible to do so. He also noted that language was not included in the constitution or the Anti-Discrimination Act as grounds for discrimination, but it was included in the Police Act, the Mental Health Act, the European Convention Act and other European Union regulations. Malta would look into the possibility of including language into domestic legislation.

The new initiative to provide free childcare was launched six months ago and was available to children aged three months to three years, at which age they were entitled to enter free kindergarten. To be eligible either both parents or guardians had to be in work; for single-parent or guardian families the person had to be in work and paying social security contributions; or for students both parents or guardians, or a single mother, father or guardian, had to be in education studying a course which would lead to a recognized degree. The childcare hours were pro-rata to the working hours of the parent or guardian, and each family benefited from an additional 60 minutes commuting time. Briefing on the initial results of the initiative a delegate said six months later an additional 1,000 children in Malta were now in childcare and 250 mothers had gone to work for the first time, 65 per cent of them were in part-time work. Many more mothers had returned to the workforce from family-leave, she added.

On maternity leave, a delegate confirmed that mothers were entitled to 16 weeks of leave paid for by the employer and an additional four weeks leave which was partly covered by social security payments.

Describing measures to prevent physical and sexual abuse of children, a delegate first spoke about how corporal punishment was now prohibited, and any legal ambiguity was eradicated in an amendment to the Criminal Code of February 2014 which made it a criminal offence for anyone to use any kind of corporal punishment at any time. He spoke about a new register of child abusers or sex offenders established by the recent Protection of Minors Act which was checked by employers. The Child Protection Service dealt specifically with cases of child abuse and would investigate the concerned family or setting, with the possibility of issuing a care order, and also worked with community services. A free 24-hour hotline was available for children or anyone else to report violations. The Commissioner for Children also took measures to curb abuses, he added. In schools, there was an awareness-raising programme to teach children how to protect themselves from abuse called ‘Babes’ which dealt with the preventive side; there was also a Sexual and Gender Abuse System in place in all schools.

Concerning the increase of women in public life, a delegate provided additional information, saying that eight of 69 Members of Parliament were women, of whom one was a minister and another a parliamentary secretary. It was true women were underrepresented in Parliament, he said, but he highlighted recent increases in the number of women local councillors to 19.8 per cent. Although Malta had no formal mechanisms for the appointment of women to the national Government, national council level elections often served as a springboard to higher echelons in political life, and it was hoped in the long run that more women would be elected to the national parliament.

A delegate sought to clarify recent rescue operations of migrants in the Mediterranean by both Maltese and Libyan vessels, explaining that in the case referred to by the Committee the migrants were rescued by a Libyan vessel and were taken directly onto a Libyan vessel and not onto the Maltese-sanctioned rescue vessel. The search and rescue area was not part of Maltese territory, he continued, saying in that area the Maltese coordinated rescues either through their own means, via the vessels of other countries or even other vessels that may be in proximity to an incident. So it was not a case of non refoulement or even of return, as the people in question were never under Maltese jurisdiction or on Maltese territory.

Concerning the jurisdiction of people rescued at sea, a delegate said non refoulement was incorporated into the Refugees Act which set out that asylum applicants could not be returned to their country of origin at any stage of their application, even if they were awaiting an appeal after their asylum case had been rejected at the first instance.

In a recent report the United Nations Refugee Agency said that Malta received the highest number of asylum applications per capita of the 44 industrialized countries covered in the report. In recent years Malta had consistently accepted over 50 per cent of asylum applicants and often up to 80 per cent. Malta received a large number of asylum applications from people coming from unstable regions in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, said a delegate, noting that the United Nations Refugee Agency had said Malta’s asylum system was readily and easily accessible.

The maximum duration of detention for asylum seekers was 12 months, but in practice, if a person’s asylum application was rejected after six months then he would cease to be an asylum seeker, and could in theory be detained for a maximum of 18 months, a delegate confirmed. However, a monthly review was conducted to ascertain whether there was still a need to detain individuals in the detention centres which applied to irregular migrants who were not asylum seekers and were being detained with a view to their deportation. In practice the periods of detention were not so high, often around 30 days, and very rarely 18 months, said a delegate. He also noted that of the 250 people released from detention this year, 192 were released after being detained for less than 15 days.

The new European Union Directive on Reception Conditions would enter into force in July 2015 and would introduce a provision to inform an asylum seeker why they may be detained, and also advise them that they could challenge their detention, something Malta was already doing in practice. Malta would consider non-custodial measures as an alternative to detention, such as regular reporting, as a result of the new European Detention Directive, a delegate said.

If an asylum seeker’s application was rejected twice measures were taken to return the person in question to his or her country of origin. The asylum seeker could submit a subsequent application, under European Union law, only if he was in possession of new evidence that could not have been available to him at an earlier stage. Responsibility for appeals lay with the Immigration Appeals Board, and the same guarantees applied to the Board as to the Judiciary, a delegate confirmed.

The age of arriving irregular migrants who claimed to be minors but were undocumented was assessed using a psycho-social model carried out by experts, and if doubts remained, a medical bone test could be carried out. Minors were no longer detained at any stage of the procedure, the delegation confirmed.

Conditions at detention centres had improved due to a number of factors. First was the reduction of the number of detainees because generally speaking people stayed in detention centres for shorter periods of time. By the end of end of September 2014 there were 266 detainees at both Lister and Safi Barracks Detention Centres, so they were well under the maximum capacity, which obviously helped to improve conditions. There had been a number of refurbishments, co-financed by the European Union, to improve services such as new flooring, new beds and the introduction of ventilation. There had been improvements to the Mount Carmel Psychiatric Hospital as well, and in other centres the use of tents had now been completely eliminated and replaced with mobile homes. Of course there was more to be done in both closed and open centres and efforts to improve conditions were ongoing.

Questions by Experts

In a follow-up question on abortion, an Expert stressed that the Committee was very much concerned about the right to life and regularly stressed concerns to all States parties which generally criminalized abortion, particularly if the life of the mother was at stake and if clandestine abortions led to a higher maternal mortality rate. The Expert asked the delegation to clarify the exceptions it had outlined, and how the Government ensured that medical doctors took measures to save the lives of mothers, given that they constantly ran the risk of being prosecuted under the Criminal Code.

What specific disciplinary action was taken as a result of the events of 16 August 2011 in Safi Barracks detention centre, and had the enquiries been published, an Expert asked.

Asking questions with regard to the Covenant’s article on the elimination of slavery and servitude, an Expert wondered how effective the National Anti-Trafficking Action Plan had been.

The Committee noted with great satisfaction the amendment to the Criminal Code which raised the age of criminal responsibility from nine to 14 years. An Expert asked about the juvenile justice system and whether juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18 were tried as adults. He also raised concerns about the right to access a lawyer during police questioning; was it correct that the lawyer was not allowed to be present during an interrogation?

Response by the Delegation

The enquiry into the 2014 detention centre incident had now been published, confirmed a delegate. The other enquiries had not been published in full, but their results and the recommendations had been, and had also been communicated to the Committee in the written replies. Three officers had been charged and were being taken to court over their involvement in the incident on 16 August 2011 in Safi Barracks detention centre, he noted. Furthermore, enforcement officials had been given training and disciplinary procedures were in place with the maximum penalty of dismissal. If an offence was committed criminal action was taken.

On actions to support trafficking victims, a delegate spoke about the objectives of the Anti-Trafficking National Action Plan and the work of the Prostitution and Human Trafficking Unit within the Police Vice Squad. He said that in 2013, seven women were formally identified as victims of trafficking who had been exploited to provide sexual services; another two potential victims who were also adult victims did not wish to take their case to the police. Victims came from countries including China, Russia and Eastern Europe countries, including Ukraine.

Residence permits were given to victims of trafficking, something which transposed European Union legislation. Regarding the possible return of a victim to their country of origin, a delegate said if that could not be done, for example due to the fear of persecution, then asylum provisions would apply. Asylum protection was not only for persecution from State actors but also non-State actors who had the power of a State, he noted, adding that the problem had not been encountered so far.

Regarding the right to a fair trial, a delegate confirmed that any accused person had the right to be assisted by a lawyer during interrogations, and also that the person being assisted did not lose their right to remain silent. Interrogating officers were obliged by law to disclose all information they had on someone who was being interrogated.

Questions by the Experts

Malta was commended for the adoption of the Civil Union Bill on 14 April 2014 which ensured that all the effects of marriage were available to civil partners. The delegation was asked about how civil society had reacted to the new law. An Expert also noted that since 2011 divorce was no longer prohibited in Malta, which was another important step forward by the State party. He asked about the conditions for divorce, including that spouses must live apart for four years before they could apply for one.

The right of migrants to marry in Malta was raised by Experts who said the current policy may be discriminatory as it could be difficult for migrants to obtain the documents required. The delegation was also asked about reports that visually impaired and blind people were obliged to vote verbally in front of a group of people who represented the political parties, which was possibly incompatible with the right to privacy.

Response by the Delegation

All lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex non-governmental organizations in Malta were party to the drafting of the Civil Union Act, and in fact the new law was entirely prepared by civil society and submitted to the Government as their proposal, a delegate said. No civil society organization had challenged the law – on the contrary, when the law was adopted more than 4,000 people gathered into the square in front of the Parliament to hold the biggest party ever to celebrate the adoption of the law.

While the law referred to ‘civil union’ in colloquial terms people referred to ‘getting married’, said a delegate, saying he also believed the Maltese Civil Union Act was the closest such act to marriage in the world. There were no residency or nationality requirements for civil unions, and couples from other countries could enter into a civil union in Malta, he
noted.

Regarding the rights of migrants to marry in Malta, a delegate said the public registry did recognize marriage rights and third-country nationals were not precluded in any way from marrying in Malta. It was also recognized that a refugee could not often obtain the required documents from their country of origin for obvious reasons. If there was a justifiable reason for a person not to produce those documents the marriage was permitted anyway. Those who were refused were people who had no justifiable reason for not producing the documents; if they were a rejected asylum seeker with nothing to fear in their home country then there was no reason why the documentary requirement should not be upheld.

There was no intention to raise the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18 years, confirmed a delegate, adding that there were no rules in the divorce procedure that favoured the man or the woman. Answering the question about visually impaired people’s right to privacy when voting, a delegate said ballot papers were available in braille and other formats and were available on request, but at the last General Election in Malta only six people requested them.

Concluding Remarks

SILVAN AGIUS, Policy Coordinator, Ministry for Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties of Malta, thanked the Committee for the useful and thought-provoking dialogue. He reaffirmed Malta’s strong commitment to the promotion and protection of all human rights. Malta would look into all of the issues raised during the review and looked forward to the Committee’s concluding observations.

NIGEL RODLEY, Committee Chairperson, commended the delegation for being inter-ministerial and inter-departmental and thus able to provide a lot of information in its answers, especially within the time limitations, which had resulted in a very constructive dialogue. The Committee noted some very, very positive developments, said Mr. Rodley, such as the ratification of the second Optional Protocol to the Covenant. Malta’s progress in eliminating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity was exemplary, and was very impressive not just in terms of the law, but in terms of public awareness-raising. Good developments in the promotion of gender equality had been made, although there was clearly room for improvement, not least in legislature. The prohibition of corporal punishment in all situations was also a very positive development.

Despite disappointment regarding the non-removal of reservations to the Covenant, Mr. Rodley said the Committee appreciated Malta’s undertaking to review them, especially those rendered palpably obsolete by virtue of changes of legislation or obligations in other international treaties. The Committee would appreciate information on whether there had been any prosecutions for defamation of religion, and thanked the delegation for trying to indicate that the State party’s ears were open on the issue.

On the issue of abortion, Mr. Rodley emphasized that the Committee was not asking about family planning, but about respect for the right to life in the Covenant, the one right upon on which the State party relied wholly for its position on abortion. The Committee found it very difficult to understand how the only possible implication of the law could be that the State party – any State party – could prefer the life of the unborn child over the life of the born mother. It could not understand how forcing a woman to carry to term a pregnancy as a result of being raped was consistent with the belief system that the State party espoused. The implications of forcing a woman to carry to term a pregnancy as a result of incest were also difficult to understand.

However, concluded Mr. Rodley, the fact remained that Malta was clearly a State that was open, free and respected human rights in a very serious and general way, and the Committee looked forward to engaging with it in follow-up to its recommendations.

_________

For use of the information media; not an official record