Vanessa Mendoza Cortés had been accused of defaming the authorities after presenting a report on women’s rights in her country at the UN. Abortion in Andorra is prohibited in all cases, an exceptional situation in the European Union. Stop Violenciès believes that its right to freedom of expression has been violated and that the organisation and its president have been subjected to a “lynching”.

Activist Vanessa Mendoza Cortés was denounced by the Andorran authorities in October 2019: she was accused of defaming her country after having presented a report on the situation of abortion in Andorra. The trial took place on 4 December. This Tuesday, 17 January, the president of the Associació Stop Violències, an association that defends women’s rights in Andorra, was acquitted after more than four years of legal proceedings.

During these years, the association and its president claim to have been the target of a “lynching”, in the form of public accusations by the authorities and in the country’s media. A process that has affected their work and that of the organisation they represent.

“Nothing to celebrate, we deeply regret that what some consider a political mistake has been a violation of our right to freedom of expression as an association and as citizens,” the organisation said in a statement. “The right to honour of its president has also been violated, she would never have imagined that because she wanted rights the government of Andorra would put her through this shameful process”.

Mendoza Cortés spoke in October 2019 at the 74th session of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) where the periodic review of Andorra before the UN Committee was taking place. There, she presented her association’s report on the situation of the protection of women and girls and the harmful effect of the current total ban on abortion in Andorra documented by Stop Violències.

Shortly after, the Andorran authorities filed a complaint against her with the Public Prosecutor’s Office arguing that her statements undermined the prestige and good name of the government. In July 2020, the Andorran Public Prosecutor’s Office urged the court to initiate preliminary proceedings against Vanessa Mendoza Cortés for the alleged crimes of “slander made with publicity” (Article 172 of the Criminal Code), “slander against the co-princes” (Article 320 of the Criminal Code) and “crimes against the prestige of institutions” (Article 325 of the Criminal Code).

In 2021, the prosecutor dropped two of the charges carrying prison sentences but maintained the charge of bringing the institutions into disrepute based on Article 325, for which Mendoza Cortés faced a possible fine of 6,000 euros, compensation of a further 6,000 euros and six months’ disqualification from holding public office.

Since the Andorran authorities denounced her for her intervention in 2019, she explains, the association has made five other reports to the UN and one more to the Council of Europe. In 2023, Stop Violències obtained accreditation as a non-governmental organisation that allows it to participate as a reporting body on human rights in Andorra to the UN, and it is the only association in Andorra with this accreditation.

International support

International human rights organisations have applauded the acquittal of the activist, but have also expressed their concern and requested measures to ensure that she and other human rights defenders can carry out their work defending the right to safe and legal abortion and other human rights of women and girls in Andorra “without intimidation or fear of reprisals”, and that pressure against the activist and the association she presides over ceases. Amnesty International, the Centre for Reproductive Rights, Women’s Link Worldwide, and Front Line.

The case had also drawn the attention of the European authorities: on 28 November 2023, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights requested the Andorran authorities to guarantee the right to freedom of expression of Vanessa Mendoza Cortés and to ensure a favourable environment for those who defend women’s human rights in the country.

The UN Secretary-General’s most recent report on reprisals included Andorra in a list of 40 countries around the world where reprisals were taken against individuals for cooperating with the UN.

The organisations remind the Andorran authorities that, under international human rights law, the use of defamation laws with the purpose or effect of inhibiting criticism of the government or public officials violates the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

For this reason, they are requesting, as they have been doing throughout the proceedings, the repeal of both article 325, which has been used against Vanessa Mendoza Cortés, and other provisions of the Penal Code relating to defamation. “Attacks that may undermine a person’s reputation should not be criminalised, and legislation designed to protect against such attacks should not be aimed at protecting abstract values or state institutions,” they say.

Abortion in Andorra

Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Women’s Link Worldwide and Front Line Defenders reiterate that the abortion ban violates people’s human rights, including their right to health, privacy, and bodily autonomy, their right to be free from torture or ill-treatment, and even their right to life.

Andorra is one of the few states in the world with a total ban on abortion in force, even on the three basic grounds – risk to the mother, foetal malformation or rape. The Stop Violence report highlighted how in Andorra if a minor becomes pregnant, the State does not provide any means by which “it forces her to give birth” and denounced how adult women are forced to have abortions in Catalonia or in Fopix (France).

In 2019, the head of the Andorran Executive, Xavier Espot, spoke out – forced by a question from the Social Democratic Party – in favour of holding a debate on the decriminalisation of abortion, and a working group was set up. But no progress has been made.

Attempts to decriminalise abortion in the country run up against the same wall: the alleged unconstitutionality of decriminalisation, since the Constitution enshrines “the right to life in all its phases”, a Catholic-inspired concept. The difficulty for it to make the decriminalisation of abortion a reality in this country is also explained by a peculiar form of state organisation that includes two co-princes whose existence dates back to the 13th century: one is the French president and the other is the bishop of La Seu d’Urgell.

The total abortion ban is an anomaly in Europe, where only Malta has a similar regulation.

Article first published: El Salto Diario

The original article can be found here