(C-Fam) The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva recently approved the appointment of South African doctor Tlaleng Mofokeng as Special Rapporteur on the right to health. Mofokeng is an outspoken advocate for “sexual and reproductive health” in the human rights arena and in her capacity as a doctor, “provided abortion services for more than a decade.”
Mofokeng’s appointment was announced last week as the outgoing holder of the position, Dainius Pūras of Lithuania, delivered a presentation on mental health to the Human Rights Council. The position of the Special Rapporteur “on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” was established in 2002, and its holders serve six-year terms.
Special rapporteurs are part of the “Special Procedures” of the Human Rights Council, which include both thematic and country-specific mandates.
Prior to Pūras, the post was held by Anand Grover of India, who in 2011 was among the first UN experts to advance the notion that access to “legal and safe abortion services” is a necessary component of the right to health. This interpretation far exceeds the definition of the right to health in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which does not mention abortion, and flies in the face of the consensus among UN member states that abortion laws are a matter for national governments to determine.
Nevertheless, abortion advocates were quick to use Grover’s report to claim that laws restricting abortion in the United States—which has not ratified ICESCR—violate international human rights standards.
UN special rapporteurs serve in an independent capacity and are not considered UN employees. Their positions are unpaid and honorary, and their recommendations are not binding. Nevertheless, they are influential on the global stage, and their independence makes them among the least accountable to constraint or reform within the UN system.
Like the observations of treaty monitoring bodies, which also notoriously exceed their mandates, the annual reports of special rapporteurs can feed into the work of other UN entities, be quoted in the work of various agencies and even cited in the resolutions adopted by the General Assembly.
Given Mofokeng’s career thus far, she is likely to exceed her mandate to an even greater extent than Grover. “I have been an abortion provider for as long as I have been a qualified doctor,” she wrote in The Guardian, in an article that also condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s expansion and reinstatement of the policy banning funding for foreign organizations that promote or provide abortions.
Mofokeng served as founding member and Vice Chairperson of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition of South Africa and was recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a leader in the area of family planning in 2016. She published an article in Teen Vogue arguing that “sex work,” or prostitution, is a job like any other.
“I am a doctor, an expert in sexual health, but when you think about it, aren’t I a sex worker?” she writes. “And in some ways, aren’t we all?”