France’s niqab ban ‘violates’ human rights, rules UN panel

30th Nov 2018
France’s niqab ban ‘violates’ human rights, rules UN panel

(Photo: Michał Huniewicz/Flickr Creative Commons)

Elham Asaad Buaras

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) has ruled France’s niqab ban is a violation of human rights.

In two landmark rulings on October 23, the UN moved to support wearers of the niqab and ordered France to repay two French women convicted for wearing niqabs in 2012.

The Committee said that France had failed to make the case for its ban and ordered it to review the legislation.

The OHCHR’s panel of independent experts who oversee countries’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, said France had 180 days to report back to say what actions it had taken. The panel’s findings are not legally binding but could influence French courts.

The OHCHR called for the women to be compensated and for a review of the 2010 law that forbids people from publicly wearing clothing that conceals their face.

‘The French law disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs,’ ruled the OHCHR.

It added that it was sceptical by France’s claim that the ban was necessary for security and social reasons. It ‘acknowledged that states could require that individuals show their faces in specific circumstances for identification purposes, but considered that a general ban on the niqab was too sweeping for this purpose.

The two French women were convicted in 2012 for wearing the niqab, a veil with an opening for the eyes.

‘The ban, rather than protecting fully veiled women, could have the opposite effect of confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them,’ the Committee said.

The OHCHR said the ban disproportionately harmed their right to manifest their religious beliefs and could lead to them being confined at home and marginalised. It said the ban was ‘too sweeping’ but that governments could still make people show their faces in specific circumstances.

The Committee’s decision reignites a debate that has raged in France for years over Muslim headwear and other religious clothing.

The debate has regularly pitted supporters of the country’s secular constitution against those who argue for religious freedoms.

The 2010 law had strong public support when brought in under former President Nicolas Sarközy. But many said it targeted the tiny minority of Muslim women in France who wear face veils.

Condemned by critics for pandering to far-right voters but backed by many women rights activists, the law made France the first European country to ban garments that cover the face.

An estimated five million Muslims live in France but only a handful of women wear the face veil. Women who ignore the ban can be fined up to €150 (£130).

Other EU countries, including Denmark, Austria and Belgium, have also implemented similar bans.

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