France: Banning the niqab violated two Muslim women’s freedom of religion – UN experts

France: Banning the niqab violated two Muslim women’s freedom of religion – UN experts

On 27 November Tony Muman led by Ramby de Mello appeared before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the renowned case of S.A.S. v France, in which the applicant argued that the French ban against face covering (which came into effect on 11 April 2011) violated articles 8 (on the right to privacy) and 9 (on the right to freedom of religion) of the European Convention of Human Rights.  Although the law banned all kinds of face coverings with certain exceptions, it was generally understood to especially aim at banning the niqab (full body Islamic veil).

At the hearing Tony argued that the French ban was unnecessary and disproportionate and that there were other options open to the French government to achieve their security or integration objectives. 

The Court disagreed and in a split judgment handed down on 1 July 2014 dismissed the case. Tony’s reaction was published on this website.

Human Rights Committee says Strasbourg was wrong

Yesterday, however, in two landmark decisions the UN Human Rights Committee held that France violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing the niqab. The judgments are in French.

As first argued by both Ramby and Tony in S.A.S., the Human Rights Committee found that the general criminal ban on the wearing of the niqab in public introduced by the French law disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs, and that France had not adequately explained why it was necessary to prohibit this clothing. The Committee was not persuaded by France’s claim that a ban on face covering was necessary and proportionate from a security standpoint or for attaining the goal of “living together” in society.

Again, as first argued by Ramby and Tony in S.A.S. the Committee 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 Committee also concluded that 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 marginalizing them.  This was a specific submission made to the Grand Chamber by Tony but rejected (wrongly) by the majority of the Court.   

Next Steps

The next step is for France within 180 days to report to the Committee on the action it has taken to implement the Committee’s decision, including compensation of the two petitioners and measures taken to prevent similar violations in the future, including by reviewing the law in question.

For further information about the case or to discuss any related matter, Tony Muman can be contacted via his clerks or on 0121 237 6035.  




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