Belgium’s Niqab ban does not violate European Convention on Human Rights

European Court of Human Rights: In the matter dealing with validity of the ban on the wearing in public of clothing that partly or totally covers the face under the Belgian law of 1 June 201, the Court held that the ban does not violate the right to respect for private and family life; freedom of thought, conscience and religion given under Articles 8 and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, nor does it violate Article 14 that provides for prohibition of discrimination.

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

The Court said that ban was valid as it sought to guarantee the conditions of “living together. It was explained that under Article 9 of the Convention the State had a broad margin of appreciation to decide whether and to what extent a restriction on the right to manifest one religion or convictions was “necessary”. In adopting the provisions in question, the Belgian State had sought to respond to a practice that it considered to be incompatible, in Belgian society, with social communication and more generally the establishment of human relations, which were indispensable for life in society. The Court also took note of the fact that the decision-making process leading to the ban in question had taken several years and had been marked by comprehensive debate in the lower house of Parliament and by a detailed examination of the various interests by the Constitutional Council.

Proportionality of the restriction

Considering the sanction for non-compliance with the ban under Belgian law that ranges from a fine to a prison sentence, the Court said that the main sanction is the fine, being the lightest penalty and that imprisonment is reserved for repeat offenders and was not applied automatically. Hence, the ban, even though it was controversial and undeniably carried risks in terms of the promotion of tolerance in society, could be regarded as proportionate to the aim pursued, namely the preservation of the conditions of “living together” as an element of the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

Prohibition of Discrimination

Explaining that as per Article 14, a policy or measure can be regarded discriminatory is that policy or measure lacked “objective and reasonable” justification, if it did not pursue a “legitimate aim” or if there was no “reasonable relationship of proportionality” between the means used and the aim pursued, the Court said that the law in question had an objective and reasonable justification for the same reasons.

The Court was hearing the plea of 2 Muslim women who contended that they had decided on their own initiative to wear the niqab, a veil covering the face except for the eyes, on account of their religious convictions. One of the women contended that the ban forced her to remove her veil temporarily, being afraid that she might be stopped in the street and then heavily fined or even sent to prison. While the other said that she had decided to stay at home, with the resulting restriction on her private and social life. The judgment was delivered by a 7-judge chamber consisting of President Robert Spano (Iceland), Julia Laffranque (Estonia), I??l Karaka? (Turkey), Nebojša Vu?ini? (Montenegro), Paul Lemmens (Belgium), Valeriu Gri?co (the Republic of Moldova), Stéphanie Mourou-Vikström (Monaco). [Belcacemi and Oussar v. Belgium, Application no. 37798/13, decided on 11.06.2017]

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