(Aug. 30, 2017) On July 11, 2017, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously ruled that Belgium’s ban on wearing an Islamic full-face veil in public does not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. (Affaire Belcacemi et Oussar c. Belgique [Case of Belcacemi and Oussar v. Belgium], Judgment (July 11 2017), Application No. 37798/13, HUDOC.)
In 2011, the Belgian federal government enacted a nation-wide ban on the wearing in public spaces of clothing that totally or significantly covers the face, thereby making identification impossible. (Loi du 1er juin 2011 visant à interdire le port de tout vêtement cachant totalement ou de manière principale le visage [Law of 1 June 2011 to Prohibit the Wearing of Any Clothing That Hides the Face Completely or to a Signficant Extent], SERVICE PUBLIC FÉDÉRAL JUSTICE.)
Two Muslim women, Samia Belcacemi and Yamina Oussar, demanded the suspension and repeal of this law on the basis that it violates the European Convention on Human Rights, especially articles 8 (right to respect for private and family life), 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), 10 (freedom of expression), and 14 (prohibition of discrimination). (Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Nov. 4, 1950, as amended by Protocols), art. 8-10, 14, ECHR website.)
The applicants’ main arguments were that the Belgian law is not precise enough and that it lacks any real justification. With regard to the first argument, the ECHR found that the words “places accessible to the public” are precise and predictable enough to be interpreted as excluding religious places. (Affaire Belcacemi et Oussar c. Belgique, supra.) With regard to the second argument, the Court repeated the same reasoning it had adopted in a prior case, S.A.S. v. France, in which it found that the law could be justified by the state’s interest in protecting “the rights and freedoms of others” by enforcing basic standards for life in society. (Id.; Nicolas Boring, European Court of Human Rights; France: Recent Court Decisions on Islamic Veil Bans, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (July 11, 2014).)
The Court acknowledged that laws such as the one at issue risked contributing to stereotyping and to the expression of intolerance, but it affirmed that democratically elected national authorities are generally better suited to evaluating the local needs and context than international judges. (Affaire Belcacemi et Oussar c. Belgique, supra.) The Court accepted that the ban was a choice made by a democratic society in order to restrict a practice deemed incompatible with Belgian social values and that this was an “objective and reasonable” justification. (Id.)
Prepared by SooYun Cho, Law Library intern, and Nicolas Boring, Foreign Law Specialist.