30 September 2005

Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, made the following statement on 29 September before reporters in Paris at the end of a visit to France:

In July 2004, I was appointed Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. I am expected to examine incidents and governmental actions in all parts of the world that are incompatible with the provisions of the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief and to recommend remedial measures as appropriate.

Like other special procedures of the Commission on Human Rights, it is a mandate that is conferred to me in my independent capacity. All special rapporteurs carry out their work in an autonomous and impartial manner. As Special Rapporteur, every year I submit a report to the Commission on my activities and on the situation of freedom of religion worldwide as well as an interim report to the General Assembly.

This mandate on freedom of religion or belief was created in 1986 by the said Commission and since then has been renewed every three years. Its activities are carried out through two main means of action:

-the first is regular communications by which I transmit to governments concerned cases or situations that have been brought to my attention and which could reveal a violation or a concern with regard to the right to freedom of religion or belief or actions that are incompatible with the previously mentioned 1981 Declaration.

-the second is country visits that are carried out at my request and at the invitation of the Governments concerned. A visit enables me to assess the situation of freedom of religion or belief in one country as well as gain global expertise. Since my appointment I have already visited Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

The reasons for my visit to France are manifold and I must first underline that a visit can only be made possible thanks to the cooperation of the host Government. For this reason I would like to thank the Government for the assistance they have provided all through my mission.

During my visit, I have met with a number of interlocutors at the governmental level who deal with issues related to my mandate. I have also met with representatives of the judiciary and of relevant institutions such as the CNCDH, the HALDE and the MIVILUDES. I have met with representatives and members of the main religious communities present on the French territory as well as representatives of associations whose members have other forms of beliefs. I have met with representatives of NGOs, religiously affiliated or not, and other actors of the civil society as well as experts and other people working at the academic level. Most of my meetings have taken place in Paris but I have also travelled to Strasbourg, Aix en Provence, Marseille and Lyon.

I have been impressed by the expertise that exists in France on the issues relevant to my mandate. It was indeed an interesting mission because France has a model of its own but also a difficult mission because it is a complex situation and the answers are not easy. I am however sure that eventually the French society will be able to overcome the obstacles as its commitment to fundamental rights runs deep and is the foundation of the Republic.

At the outset, I wish to underline that the French Government generally respects the right to freedom of religion or belief as it is protected under the international treaties to which France is a party and that the strength of its judiciary constitutes a guarantee of its main values. There are nevertheless certain areas of concern:

The debate on the so called “sects” and the different measures that were taken at the governmental and parliamentary level in the second part of the 90s have undermined the right to freedom of religion or belief. In particular, the establishment of a list as well as the awareness policies that have been carried out raise serious concerns in terms of freedom of religion or belief. Nevertheless, in the last few years the authorities have begun to take measures to redress the situation. In this regard I note the circulaire adopted in May 2005 by the former prime minister and the balanced approach to the phenomenon adopted by the MIVILUDES.

I have also noted that the situation prevailing today in France is different to the one which existed at the time of the adoption of the 1905 law, which constitutes the basis of the principle of “laïcité” in the French Republic. While recognizing that the organization of a society according to this principle of “laïcité” may not only be healthy, but also guarantee the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief, I am concerned that, in some circumstances, the selective interpretation and rigid application of the law has operated at the expense of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

The law of March 2004 on conspicuous religious symbols in public schools has a positive element as it takes into account the autonomy of a female child who may be subjected to gender discrimination at a stage when she is unable to realize the consequences of being lured or forced into wearing a headscarf. At the same time, the law denies the right to those teenagers who have freely chosen to wear a religious symbol in school as part of their religious belief. In particular, the law denies innocent expression of religious beliefs even if it is conspicuous as in the case of Sikh children.

It is my impression that the direct and, in particular, the indirect consequences of this law have not been properly considered. Although many interlocutors feel satisfied with the results of the implementation of the law, I have noticed that the figures given are often disputed, including because the criteria used for the assessment vary. Moreover the issue is one of principle and not a number game. My concerns are more serious with regard to the indirect consequences of the law in the longer term. The implementation of the law by school establishments has in a number of cases lead to abuses that provoked feelings of humiliation, in particular amongst young Muslim women. According to many voices, such public humiliation can only lead to radicalization of the affected persons and those associated with them. Moreover, the stigmatization of the so called Islamic headscarf has triggered a wave of religious intolerance when women wear it outside school, at university or at their workplace.

The Jewish community, as well as its members, continue to be the target of a number of acts of religious intolerance. Regardless of the underlying reasons for these acts, I believe that the French Government should remain, as it does, extremely vigilant in this regard and continue to take the appropriate measures to prosecute the perpetrators as well as to redress the situation vis-à-vis the victims.

During my mission, I have been able to gather information on the status of freedom of religion or beliefs in prisons and had the opportunity to visit the prison des Baumettes in Marseille. The French authorities have demonstrated in this regard a high level of transparency and great cooperation. The organization of the spiritual life of people deprived of their liberties is not an easy matter. A lot of measures are currently put in place and I encourage the French Government to pursue this path.

Finally, the efforts that are currently undertaken by religious communities and the civil society towards a strengthening of the interreligious dialogue are undoubtedly a source of encouragement.

I will be elaborating on these issues in the report that I will now be drafting on France. It will be submitted at the next session of the Commission on Human Rights. This report should be available to the public by the beginning of the year 2006 and will include conclusions and recommendations for the French Government.

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