The Council of Europe, the oldest European institution which specialises in human rights, today (20 July) strongly criticised recent French and Belgian legislation targeting the burqa, a veil that covers entirely women's faces.
Penalising women who wear the burqa does not liberate them, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, said today in a written statement.
Hammarberg explained that a law in Belgium will enter into force on 23 July, introducing fines and up to seven days of imprisonment for women wearing such dress. Meanwhile in France, since April anyone who wears the niqab or burqa in public is subject to fines of 150 euros and/or "citizenship training".
He adds that "loud voices" in countries such as Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland are demanding similar measures, while in northern Italy an old anti-terrorist law against concealing the face for security reasons has been used by some local authorities to punish women who wear full-cover veils.
The human rights commissioner rejects the view that such bans 'liberate' women, stressing that there is "very little" to show that this is the case.
Instead, Hammarberg insists that the way the dress of a small number of women has been portrayed as a major problem requiring urgent discussion and legislation is "a sad capitulation to the prejudices of xenophobes".
"Much deeper problems of intercultural tensions and gaps have been side-tracked by the burqa and niqab discussions. Instead of encouraging this unfortunate discourse, political leaders and governments should take more resolute action against hate crimes and discrimination against minorities," Hammarberg argues.
Burqa ban backfires?
The Council of Europe takes the view that banning women who wear the burqa from public institutions like hospitals or government buildings may result in them avoiding such places entirely.
The institution quotes a report from the Open Society Foundation, which reveals that since the debate on the face veil began in France, 30 of 32 burqa-wearing women interviewed had experienced verbal abuse, and some had also been physically assaulted. As a direct result they preferred to limit the amount of time they spent outside the home, the NGO found.
The burqa ban may run counter to European human rights standards, in particular the right to respect of one's private life and personal identity, and as a matter of principle, the state should avoid legislating on how people dress, Hammarberg insists.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an recently used the Council of Europe's stage to accuse France of violating freedom of religion, after Paris began to enforce its ban on the burqa.