New publication: Procedural Review in European Fundamental Rights Cases

I am happy to present a new book, Procedural Review in European Fundamental Rights Cases, which is a joint edition of prof Janneke Gerards (Utrecht University) and myself. It originated in an expert seminar we hosted jointly at Ghent University in 2015. We will be addressing this topic also in a panel at the next ICON-S conference in Copenhagen.

This is the abstract and table of contents: Continue reading

Trivializing anti-personnel mines and ignoring childness: Sarıhan v Turkey

In an astonishingly laconic judgment (available only in French), the Court found no violation in the case of a 12-year old who was wounded by an anti-personnel mine while herding his sheep.

Facts and Ruling

The facts in this case date back to the summer of 2003, in a Kurdish village in East Turkey, not far from the borders with Armenia and Iran. 12-year old Erkan Sarıhan was herding his sheep in a minefield, situated at 150 metres from his village. He was playing with an anti-personnel mine when it exploded, causing severe injuries to his face, hands and chest. The minefield, which belonged to an army post situated 200 metres further, was surrounded with barbed wire and warning signs. There was also a watch post manned by two soldiers, who however did not have a view of the entire terrain and as a result had not seen the child enter. The inquiry into the accident showed that through the village mayor, the inhabitants of the village had regularly been warned about the dangers of the minefield. The report concluded that the child’s parents were responsible for the accident. It also held that it was necessary, in order to prevent similar accidents, to move the watch post so that it would overview the entire terrain, and to install specific warning signs for illiterate persons.

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ECJ headscarf series (5): The Field in which Achbita will Land – A Brief Sketch of Headscarf Persecution in Belgium

By Eva Brems

What is at Stake? The Hijab Wearer as an Outlaw

The corporate anti-headscarf policy that is challenged in the Achbita case has to be situated in the context of a country that has seen headscarf bans expand like an oil stain from one sector to the next. This results in a situation which can, without exaggeration, be termed ‘headscarf persecution’. Bans that affect mainly the Muslim headscarf are popping up in all sorts of environments, to the effect that the headscarf itself is de-normalized and is almost automatically problematized. In any context whatsoever, a real risk exists that someone will question whether the headscarf can be allowed, and a real risk exists that the answer to such a question will be negative. As a result, Muslim women who wear a headscarf in Belgium gradually become outlaws.

Belgian courts do not necessarily protect against headscarf-based discrimination, and when they do, their judgments have more than once remained without implementation. The stakes of Achbita for hijab wearers in Belgium are clear: can the expansion of the oil stain be stopped or not? Is there or is there not a limit to the activities or places from which headscarf wearers can be excluded, and to the grounds that can be invoked in support of such exclusion?

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Headscarves in Luxembourg – A blog series on the contrasting Opinions of AG Kokott and AG Sharpston

By Eva Brems

The Kokott-Sharpston Standoff at the Threshold to the Summer of Shame

In France and Belgium, the summer of 2016 will be remembered as the summer of the burkini debates. Numerous French municipalities banned Islamic swimgear that covers the body, and in Belgium, majority politicians called for a similar ‘burkini’ ban. The world watched with disbelief as French police chased Muslim women wearing body-covering swimwear from public beaches, or even forced them to undress in public. After the Council of State suspended such a measure in one municipality, the French Prime Minister did not hesitate to publicly criticise the highest administrative court. For those committed to combating minority discrimination, this debate was a turning point, as many proponents of a ban no longer bothered to dress it up as a measure protecting values such as neutrality, the protection of vulnerable people, gender equality or even the notoriously vague concept of ‘living together’. Many of the participants in the burkini debates felt no longer inhibited from publicly saying what it was really about for them: a dislike of Islam, and the desire not to be confronted with it. For Muslim women in both countries, this honesty about the underlying motives is probably all that distinguishes burkini bans from the bans on other types of female Islamic dress (mainly hijab and niqab bans) that they have been confronted with for decades. Yet for many observers who may not have reacted to such previous bans, the French burkini campaign was a step too far. The need for clear limits to admissible restrictions on Islamic dress has thus become keenly felt.

Shortly before the burkini row kicked off, two Advocate Generals of the European Court of Justice issued their opinions in two parallel cases of alleged headscarf discrimination. Both a Belgian and a French court asked the ECJ for guidance, through a preliminary ruling, on whether the dismissal of an employee by a private employer on grounds of her wearing an Islamic headscarf, against the employer’s dress policy, violates EU antidiscrimination law. The Opinions of AG Kokott in the Achbita case and of AG Sharpston in the Bougnaoui case reach opposite conclusions: for Kokott, there is no discrimination, for Sharpston there is. Underlying the difference in outcomes are numerous important differences in the interpretation of the Employment Equality Directive. These differences of interpretation, in turn, betray widely divergent views on the protection of the fundamental rights of minorities in Europe.

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Sakir v Greece: Racist violence against an undocumented migrant

By Eva Brems

In a recent case, the Court found a violation of article 3 ECHR on account of the defective investigation into a serious incident of racist violence that occurred in Athens in 2009. In addition, the detention conditions imposed upon the victim (sic!) also violated article 3. The judgment explicitly recognizes the structural character of the problem of racist violence in Athens and expects the Greek authorities to do the same. However, when it comes to structural solutions, an obvious one is overlooked.

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Face veils in Strasbourg (bis): the Belgian cases

By Eva Brems

In the Grand Chamber judgment of SAS v France (2014) the European Court of Human Rights held that France’s ban on face covering in public could be justified under article 9 ECHR as a proportionate measure for the aim of guaranteeing ‘le vivre ensemble’ (living together). Given the storm of protest that this judgment raised among human rights scholars and activists, it may be of interest to note that the second section of the Court recently communicated two applications against the Belgian face covering ban. Indeed, about one year after France adopted its ban, Belgium did the same. Belgium and France are the only two countries that have adopted a general ban on face covering in public (local or regional bans exist in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Switzerland). In Belgium, the nationwide ban was preceded by municipal bans, that continue to be enforced alongside the criminal ban.

While it is unlikely that the Court would overrule a recent and unanimous Grand Chamber judgment, it is not excluded that it might take this opportunity to explain and possibly nuance some of the statements it made in SAS.

The Human Rights Centre of Ghent University submitted a third party intervention in one of the Belgian cases.

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Ebrahimian v France: headscarf ban upheld for entire public sector

By Eva Brems

On 26 November, the Court added a new chapter to its ‘headscarf’ jurisprudence, upholding the non-renewal of a contract in a public hospital on the ground of the applicant’s refusal to take off her headscarf.

The case in brief

15 years ago, in December 2000, the applicant, who had been working for 15 months with a temporary contract as a social assistant in the psychiatric wing of a public hospital in the Paris area, was informed that her contract would not be renewed. This was a disciplinary measure as a result of her refusing to stop wearing an Islamic headscarf, which had given rise to complaints from both patients and colleagues. Continue reading