[JURIST] Council of Europe (COE) [official website] Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg [official profile] on Wednesday condemned [press release] the flurry of burqa [JURIST news archive] and niqab [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] bans that have been implemented recently around the world. Hammarberg said the bans may not conform to European human rights standards such as the right to respect for personal life and personal identity. He noted that there are sometimes compelling reasons for requiring women to remove the veils in certain circumstances, including safety or for identification purposes. However, he said that the bans are repressive and that targeting women is not the solution. Hammarberg emphasized that the laws could have unintended consequences:
It is more likely that such laws—so obviously targeting the adherents of one religious faith—would further stigmatise these women and lead to their alienation from the majority society. Banning women dressed in the burqa/niqab from public institutions like hospitals or government offices may only result in them avoiding such places entirely. This is not liberation.
Instead of penalizing women, Hammarberg said, governments should take action against hate crimes and discrimination against minorities.
Belgium’s interim cabinet announced last week that the nation will be officially banning the burqa [JURIST report] beginning July 23. A French Muslim couple living in the UK filed a challenge [JURIST report] last month in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] over the French ban [materials, in French] on full face coverings. Also in June, a Spanish court upheld a city ban on veils in municipal buildings for identification and security purposes. Under the French ban, people caught wearing facial coverings in public can be fined €150 (USD $215) and/or ordered to take a citizenship class. In addition, anyone convicted of forcing a someone else to cover their face may be fined up to 30,000 euro and jailed for one year [AFP report, in French], and the penalties double if the incident involves a minor. The ban affects citizens, residents and tourists alike, and extends to all public places [Le Figaro backgrounder, in French], including airports, hospitals, government offices and even places of worship that are open to the public. In October, the French Constitutional Council ruled that the ban conforms with the Constitution [JURIST report]. Also in October, Dutch politician Geert Wilders [personal website, in Dutch] said that the Netherlands will ban the burqa [JURIST report] as part of the government’s plan to form a minority coalition. In August, Austria’s conservative Freedom Party [official website, in German] called for a special vote [JURIST report] on whether to ban face veils and the construction of minarets, two of the most visible symbols of the Islamic faith. In July, Spain’s lower house of parliament rejected a proposal [JURIST report] to ban the burqa and other full face veils by a vote of 183 to 162 with two abstaining.