Malta’s blanket ban on abortion puts women at risk of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the International Commission of Jurists has told the UN.

The prohibition of abortion without medical exceptions meant Malta was also failing to ensure women’s right to life and the highest attainable standard of health were met, said the ICJ, which is composed of 60 inter­national judges and lawyers.

The ICJ made its observations this month in its submission to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of the human rights records of all member states.

Malta’s abortion ban undermined its compliance with numerous UN conventions and covenants, according to the ICJ.

It recommended Malta dec­riminalise abortion and ensure that women have access to safe abortions when their life or health may be at risk or where respect for the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment so requires.

Malta is the only EU country that bans the termination of pregnancies in all circumstances, even when the woman’s life is in danger.

The main political parties have consistently supported the ban and public opposition to the law is muted.

The ICJ echoed concerns from the 2010 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, when Malta was urged to remove the provisions criminalising women who undergo abortion and to enact exceptions allowing abortion for medical purposes and in cases of rape or incest.

Among its other recommen­dations to the UN, the ICJ said Malta should enact legislative alternatives to the detention of “prohibited immigrants” and asylum seekers.

Malta mandatorily holds adults caught entering its territory irregularly in detention centres for up to 18 months while their identities and claims for protection are assessed.

Some 16,617 such people have arrived in Malta since 2002, with the UN refugee office (UNHCR) estimating that just over 5,000 remain on the island.

Legislation should make it clear that migrants and asylum seekers will be assessed on a case-by-case basis and only be detained when it is “strictly necessary” and subject to a clear maximum duration, the ICJ said.

Periodic judicial reviews of detention cases and free legal assistance to detainees should be provided.

ICJ members had visited migrant reception centres and expressed concern about whether residents’ rights to adequate housing, health and an adequate standard of living were being met.

The conditions at Ħal Far reception centre in particular constituted degrading treatment and the commission recommended its immediate closure.

Although this centre is rarely used, the authorities have never publicly dismissed its use and it is still available for emergency arrivals.

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