UK

Burka Ban 'Does Not Violate Human Rights' Rules European Court - Despite Outcry From UK Group, Liberty

01/07/2014 12:49 BST | Updated 01/07/2014 12:59 BST
Peter Macdiarmid via Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: A woman wears an Islamic niqab veil stands outside the French Embassy during a demonstration on April 11, 2011 in London, England. France has become the first country in Europe to ban the wearing of the veil and in Paris two women have been detained by police under the new law. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The French burka ban does not breach human rights laws, the European Court of Human Rights has declared - despite outcry from a UK human rights group.

The case, which has important implications for the UK, followed a complaint by a French woman, who is a practising Muslim, that she is no longer allowed to wear the full-face veil because of a law prohibiting concealment of the face in public places in France.

The European Court's Grand Chamber declared, by a majority, that there had been no violation of the Article 8 right to respect for private and family.

It also held there had been no violation of Article 9, which protects respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the law was not discriminatory under Article 14.

The UK human rights pressure group Liberty intervened in the court case, arguing the ban, which came into force in France in April 2011, violated all those articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Liberty says today's ruling has major potential repercussions for freedom of religion and freedom of expression - not just in France but here in the UK and across Europe.

Liberty's director Shami Chakrabarti condemned the "criminalising of women's clothing" and linked it to the "rising racism in Western Europe".

Ms Chakrabarti said: "How do you liberate women by criminalising their clothing?

"If you suspect bruises under a burqa, why punish the victim, and if you disapprove of the wearer's choices how does banishing her from public engagement promote liberal attitudes?

"Banning the veil has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with rising racism in Western Europe."

In a press statement, the Registrar of the European Court said the court had emphasised that "the State" had "a lot of room for manoeuvre" regarding a "general policy question on which there were significant differences of opinion" and there had been no breach of the convention.

The legal challenge was brought by a Muslim woman, known as S.A.S., who filed an application to the European Court opposing the law on the day it was introduced.

S.A.S was described in court as a French national born in 1990 and a devout Muslim.

She told the court she wore the burka, which covers the whole body, and also the niqab full-face veil, in accordance with her religious faith, culture and personal convictions.

Neither her husband nor any other member of her family had put pressure on her to dress in the manner she had chosen, and she wore the niqab in public and in private.

She also stated she did not wear it in certain circumstances but wished to be able to wear it when she chose to do so.

Her aim was not to annoy others but to feel at inner peace with herself.

She complained that the new law infringed her human rights because she was unable to wear the full-face veil in public.

The ban amounted to discrimination on grounds of sex, religion and ethnic origin, and was to the detriment of women who, like herself, wore the full-face veil.

In today's ruling, the European Court said it noted that the French legislature was seeking to satisfy the need "to identify individuals" and so prevent danger to people and property,and to combat identity fraud.

However the ban was not "necessary in a democratic society" in order to fulfil that aim and could only be proportionate for that purpose if there was "a general threat to public safety".

But the court accepted that promoting respect for "living together" was a legitimate reason for imposing the ban - and that concealing the face with a veil in public could undermine the notion of "respect for the minimum requirements of living together in society".

The court Registrar's statement said the judges had taken into account the French submission that the face "played a significant role in social interaction.

"The court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question.

"The court was therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which made living together easier."

Although the law admittedly had "specific negative effects" on Muslim women, it had "an objective and reasonable justification", the court ruled.

The overall decision was by a majority, with two judges giving a dissenting opinion.