On Tuesday, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that France’s law banning face veils violated the human rights of two women who were fined in 2012 for wearing a niqab.
The Committee found that the general criminal ban under French law on wearing the niqab in public disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs and that France had not adequately explained why it was necessary to prohibit the niqab. In particular, the Committee was not persuaded by France’s claim that a ban on face-coverings was necessary and proportionate from a security standpoint or for attaining the goal of “living together” in society. 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 that purpose. Moreover, the Committee also concluded that, rather than protecting fully-veiled women, the ban could have the opposite effect of confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalizing them.
The case was the first of its kind to be considered by the Committee. While it regularly receives and rules on the practical application of civil and political rights in individual cases, it had not until now considered the question of laws which have the effect of banning the full Islamic veil.
The next step is for France to report to the Committee within 180 days on the action it has taken to implement the Committee’s decision, the compensation paid to the two petitioners and the measures it has taken to prevent similar violations in the future – including by reviewing the law in question. As to that last point, however, given France’s long-standing commitment to laïcité and a scrupulous – not to say over-zealous – separation between religion and the state, I’m not holding my breath.