French politicians urged to reject ban on full face veils

Amnesty International is calling on French law-makers to reject a draft law banning the wearing of full face veils in public that was adopted by the government and put before Parliament today.  

The proposal, which is being put forward by the French government after a prolonged public debate on the wearing of Islamic face veils, would prohibit the wearing anywhere in public of any form of clothing intended to conceal one’s face.  

"A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab in public as an expression of their identity or beliefs," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's expert on discrimination in Europe.

Breach of the law would be punishable by a fine of up to 150 Euros and / or the requirement to complete a community rehabilitation programme.

The move comes only a few weeks after the lower chamber of the Belgian parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a similar ban.

The Council of State (Conseil d’Etat), France’s top legal advisory body, has already expressed serious reservations about the compatibility of such a general ban with the French constitution and the country’s obligations under international human rights law.

“To ignore the advice of the Council of State on this issue would be to betray an indifference to human rights law in general and the rights of Muslim women who choose to wear full face veils in particular,” said John Dalhuisen.

The French government has argued that the ban is necessary for public safety and to protect women from being pressurised into wearing full face veils.

“Legitimate security concerns can be met by targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations.   Individuals may also be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary, for instance for identity checks.  French law already allows for such limited restrictions,” said John Dalhuisen.  

States do have an obligation to protect women against pressure or coercion in their homes or communities to wear full face veils.

They should do this by taking steps to combat gender stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes and, where appropriate, by intervening in individual cases through criminal or family law. A generally applicable ban would restrict the rights of those who freely choose to wear full face veils, while punishing those who do so against their will.

“For those women who are being coerced into wearing full face veils, the ban means they will either face state punishment if they go out in public – or more likely – they will be confined to their homes. This is counter-productive.” said John Dalhuisen.

“Some people may well find the wearing of full face veils objectionable, or contrary to established social customs.  However, human rights law is quite clear on this – the disquiet of one person cannot be used to justify a restriction on the freedom of expression of another,” said John Dalhuisen.

“Much of the public debate in France on the wearing of full face veils has focused on the need to defend French Republican values.  Amnesty International does not believe that such important values as liberty, equality and fraternity can be advanced by such a discriminatory restriction,” said John Dalhuisen.

Background

Under international human rights law, restrictions on freedom of expression and the manifestation of religion or belief are permissible only when they are demonstrably necessary and proportionate for the achievement of certain specific purposes permitted by international law.

The only legitimate purposes for such restrictions are to protect certain public interests (national security or public safety, or public order, health or morals) or the rights of others.  

Amnesty International does not believe that a complete ban on the wearing of full face veils in public is necessary to achieve any of these goals.

Amnesty International France addressed a letter to the French Prime Minister on 20 April this year setting out the organization’s position on a generally applicable ban on the wearing of full face veils. Amnesty International France also contributed to the deliberations of the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights and shares the position expressed in its opinion published on 21 January 2010, which opposes a general prohibition on the wearing of full face veils.