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French ban on faith symbols would contravene international rights law

28 January 2004

The proposed ban on ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols is in direct contravention of France’s obligations under international human rights law said Minority Rights Group International (MRG) today. New laws may exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions if imposed on members of religious minorities attending state institutions, who may perceive them to be discriminatory. Minority Rights Group International, which works to uphold the rights of minorities, including religious and cultural rights, today called upon President Chirac to rethink the culturally divisive policy.

According to Minority Rights Group International, the legislation contravenes France’s obligations under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). Article 9 of the Convention clearly establishes both freedom of religion, and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in public and private spheres. These rights may be subject to certain limitations at the discretion of states, such as the protection of public order, however MRG believes that France’s proposed ban fails to meet the strict criteria required to impose these limitations on religious freedom, which must be ‘necessary in a democratic society’. The wholesale ban of religious symbols would not be consistent with the spirit and objective of the Convention, which is to protect freedoms rather than to deny them, stated MRG.

The French proposals equally contravene Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which imposes similar strict conditions regarding limitations and allows for no derrogation of the right to freedom of religion. This article has been expanded upon by the Human Rights Committee, the ICCPR’s monitoring body, in General Comment 22 of 1993, to include provision under this Article for ‘the wearing of distinctive clothing or head coverings’. Both the ECHR and the ICCPR have been ratified by France without reservation to the relevent articles.

While attention has been mainly focused on Muslim communities and issues around the wearing of the Islamic hijab (headscarve or veil), France’s Sikh community is amongst others which have expressed grave concern over the proposed legislation. A 5000 strong Sikh community in Northern Paris has taken advice from religious leaders from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India who have also travelled to Paris to meet officials in advance of a planned protest. The turban worn by Sikhs, the Jewish kipot (skull cap), and other religious symbols could all be banned under the legislation which officials have suggested may even extend to beards worn out of adherence to religious faith. MRG has advocated internationally for the protection and promotion of religious rights including provisions for worship and other manifestations of religious practice such as the wearing of the hijab as an act of free choice. While the ban would, in theory also apply to ‘large Christian crosses’ it is seen by many to clearly target non-Christian minorities.

‘It is inevitable that religious minorities will see themselves as targeted by assimilationist legislation such as this’, stated MRG Director, Mark Lattimer. ‘Far from achieving integration, this policy is likely to consolidate ethnic and religious divisions’.

MRG is lobbying for a Europe wide ratification and implementation of the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), which includes strong protection of religious rights under Article 5. While Brussels has pushed EU accession states to ratify the FCNM and implement minority protection rules, a number of existing EU states including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece have not been subject to the same pressure. MRG urges these states to ratify and implement the FCNM as a positive move towards establishing a common European standard for the promotion and protection of minority rights.

Notes for editors

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].