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UNDERSTANDING FORCED STERILIZATION: AN UNSETTLING VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

Introduction

Forced sterilization, also known as coerced or compulsory sterilization, is generally a government-authorized program to sterilize people belonging to a specific group or strata of society, without their due consent or volition. Through these programs, the government seeks to impair and eliminate an individual’s ability to reproduce. However, it must be noted that it is not always the governments who organize this practice, powerful social groups, and individuals too can be the initiators.

Women, as well as men, have been subjected to this violation of bodily autonomy all around the world for the past several decades. In the 20th century, forced sterilization programs have been carried out in innumerable nations. The practice is aimed at achieving population control by taking away the ability to reproduce of certain groups of people. The notion underlying forced sterilization is one of discrimination as it attempts to distinguish between caste, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, disabilities etc. The practice is closely related to the discipline of eugenics, which attempts to study how reproduction in human beings leads to the inheritance of “desirable traits” in their offspring.

Around the world, the practice has been used as a means to propagate discriminatory ideals with the view of dividing people further. Supporters attempt to rationalize this practice by highlighting the positive impacts of eugenics and population control. However, no reason can justify the fact that it is a gross violation of internationally accepted laws. Forced sterilization is a form of social control which is deemed to be a crime against humanity as well as a violation of the right to be free from torture and other forms of mistreatment and punishment.[1]

Forced Sterilization Around the World

Minority groups are especially vulnerable to forced sterilizations; and even within the minority groups, it is often women who are forced to undergo this procedure. Forced and coerced sterilization has been recorded in many countries of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.[2]

Puerto Ricans, the residents of a nation which has one of the highest rates of sterilization in the world[3], the entire practice is simply referred to as, ‘La Operación,’ which indicates the normalization of this brutal practice by the masses.

Forced sterilization is incredibly common in African countries, especially those laden with terrorism and political instability. It has been a rampant practice in nations like Kenya, South Africa, and Namibia. Peru between 1996 and 2000, witnessed the sterilization of 270,000 women and 22,000 men as part of a government-run birth control program according to official figures.[4] The program was carried out by then administration governed by President Fujimori, who was brought to trial by 1,317 plaintiffs. In 2022, due to deliberate delays by the judiciary and administration, the victims protested the probable pardon of Fujimori.[5]

India is no stranger to forced sterilization programs. The subject of ‘male sterilization’ has been a political taboo since 1977, when millions of Indian men were forced to get sterilized during the state of emergency. It has been reported that women in India were paid twenty-five euros for becoming sterilized. Family planning is primarily considered to be a woman’s responsibility.[6] The issue of forced sterilization is not unique to developing and underdeveloped nations. History bears testimony to the fact that developed countries too have had their governments create and enforce forced sterilization programs under the guise of controlling population growth.

On June 2, 2023, the Sendai High Court in Japan reportedly rejected an appeal for damages by two women who were sterilized under a now-defunct “eugenic” law. The law allowed the sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses and/or hereditary conditions. Often the victims’ consent was not even taken.[7]

In the US, a 1927 Supreme Court judgment validated the forced sterilization of over 70,000 individuals. In the infamous case of Buck v. Bell[8], the state of Virginia had deemed a woman named Carrie Buck to be “feeble-minded” and therefore, ineligible of reproducing. In 2021, California became the third state to approve a reparations program for forced sterilizations. Back in the year 1909, California had the US’ largest forced sterilization program and is believed to have inspired the practice in Nazi Germany too. This is in light of the recent reports that the state is trying to find and provide reparations to 600 victims of forced sterilization.[9]  World War II had left a left eugenics-sized footprint behind for the globe to see. Many nations took inspiration from the same and carried out their own forced sterilization programs. Among these were also the nations of Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Norway etc. carrying out their own programs from the 1930s to the 1980s.

International Law and Human Rights on Forced Sterilization

Forced sterilization is a crime against humanity and yet, an offence which is committed around the world. It is being performed by individuals, terrorist groups and governments alike. Unfortunately, forced sterilization programs are often sanctioned by the governments themselves; the very institution that is supposed to protect all citizens and subjects which fall under it. In lieu of population control, it imposes such mistreatment on its people.

The Rome Statute in Art. 8(2)(b)(xxii) and Art. 7(1)(g) acknowledge compulsory sterilization to be “a war crime” and “a crime against humanity.”[10] It borrows from the Genocide Convention of 1948 and recognises “measures intended to prevent births within a group,” as an act constituting genocide, especially when committed intentionally to destroy, wholly or in part, a particular social group.

Under human rights law, forced sterilization is any sterilization procedure carried out in the absence of a person’s full, free, prior and informed consent. Even if the individual consents to the procedure, it will not be considered to be “valid consent” unless he has sufficient and correct information about the procedure and its impacts, has been given time to deliberate[11] upon the same, and is free from any coercion[12] or inducement. In 2014, several organizations like the World Health Organization, UN Women, UNAIDS etc. came together to issue an inter-agency statement on “Eliminating forced, coercive and otherwise involuntary sterilization.”

Forced sterilization is a form of social control which is violative of several human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), including the right to be free from torture and all forms of mistreatment (Art. 5), rights to sexual as well as reproductive health (Art. 3), right against discrimination (Art. 7) and the right to equality (Art. 10)[13]. International measures towards preventing forced sterilizations also include, the Istanbul Convention[14] – a 2014-treaty aimed at preventing and combating violence against women, and the judgment in I.V. v. Bolivia[15]

Conclusion

Forced sterilization is rightly recognized by the international community to be a war crime and a crime against humanity. Innumerable people globally have undergone the procedure of forced sterilization and are still being subjected to it against their will. They haven’t been provided with the option to make the choice for themselves; the decision has been thrust upon them, by people who deem them unworthy of the right to reproduce.

While the international community has taken steps to discourage governments from adopting the practice of forced sterilization on its population, it is still lacking in its implementation of international law. Firstly, all nations are not signatories and therefore, not morally bound to follow the rules laid down in the statutes and treaties. Secondly, there is a lack of sanctions; although the ICC has powers to try individuals, corporations and governments who carry out forced sterilization, its rulings are not legally binding on any state. They have the option to accept and comply with the judgment or choose to let it be blown away by the wind. Thirdly, during trials in courts of any level, there are often a lot of interventions and delays which result in the judgments being delayed or not being decided for long durations of time. This results in the gross miscarriage of justice.

Forced sterilizations target marginalized and vulnerable groups of people, to propagate the ideals of Darwinism. This often has grave psychological, physical and social consequences on the people subjected thereto. Thus, the International Community must work towards eradicating such gross violations of human rights.

Author(s) Name: Srishti Singh (Army Institute of Law, Mohali)

Reference(s):

[1] ‘Sterilization of Women and Girls with Disabilities’ (Human Rights Watch) <www.hrw.org/news/2011/11/10/sterilization-women-and-girls-disabilities> accessed 8 June 2023

[2] Priti Patel, ‘Forced sterilization of women as Discrimination’ (2017) PHR 38, 15

[3] Alexandra Lazar, ‘La Operación: Coerced Sterilization of Puerto Rican Women in the 20th Century’ (2021) < https://digitalworks.union.edu/theses/2427> accessed on 9 June 2023

[4] ‘Peru forced sterilisations case reaches key stage’ (BBC News, 1 March 2021) <www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56201575> accessed 10 June 2023

[5] ‘Forced sterilization victims in Peru protest possible Fujimori pardon’ (Al Día News, 2017) <https://aldianews.com/en/politics/policy/forced-sterilization> accessed 8 June 2023

[6] Vivien Götz, ‘Irreversible Contraception: Why Female Sterilization Is Both Widespread and Under Fire’ (Der Speigel Online-Nachrichten, 1 November 2022) <https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/irreversible-contraception-why-female-sterilization-is-both-widespread-and-under-fire-a-56bd3aa8-87ab-423b-9017-040c93e9164c> accessed on 8 June 2023

[7] ‘Japanese high court rejects appeal for damages over forced sterilization’ (The Japan Times, 2 June 2023) <www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/06/02/national/sterilization-court-appeal/> accessed 10 June 2023

[8] Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)

[9] ‘California tries to find 600 victims of forced sterilization for reparations’ (The Guardian, 5 January 2023) <www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jan/05/california-reparations-forced-sterilization> accessed 10 June 2023

[10] Rome Statute of ICC, 1998 art. 8(2)(b)(xxii) & art. 7(1)(g)

[11] UN Committee on CEDAW Communication No. 3/2004 (29 August 2006) CEDAW/C/36/D/4/2004

[12] V.C. v Slovakia [2009] App No 18968/07, ECHR

[13] Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, arts 3, 5, 7 & 10

[14] The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (adopted 7 April 2011, entered into force 1 August 2014) CETS 210

[15] I.V. v Bolivia [2016] IACHR No 12.655