This post was co-authored by Katerina Linos, Professor of Law at Berkeley Law School.
Human rights advocates place great faith in international treaties and the courts designed to enforce them, but the right wing of the political spectrum tends to be less enthusiastic about these institutions. The human rights community assumes that treaties and courts create a one-way street leading inexorably toward greater human rights protections. We disagree and events surrounding recent decisions by Europe’s Court of Human Rights support our view.
On Tuesday, July 1, this European Court ruled that European human rights law allows France to ban the burqa, rejecting the argument that restrictions on Islamic veils threaten Muslim women’s freedom of religion and expression. What happened next suggests that human rights agreements do not work exclusively to enhance human rights.
Anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe is at an all-time high and leaders of far right parties wasted no time in using the ruling to call for copycat laws banning Islamic head-coverings. In Norway, Progress Party representative Mazyar Keshvari said: “The court in Strasbourg has now confirmed what we have constantly said: that a ban is compatible with human rights.” Austria’s Freedom Party plans to introduce a bill to ban burqas next week. In preparation, they just launched a poster campaign “against the Islamization of Europe” that portrays a blonde woman with the headline “too beautiful for a veil.” In Denmark, the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party is also calling for a ban.
Human rights courts and the far right make strange bedfellows — or do they? In “Human Rights Backsliding“, an article just published in the California Law Review, we argue that international norms that can help improve human rights in poorly performing states can also lead high-performing states to weaken their domestic protections. After all, both progressive and conservative leaders can point to international standards in support of the claim that their proposals are mainstream rather than radical. A ban on certain kinds of clothing seems extreme, as do its proponents. But once the European Court of Human Rights says it is permitted, it suddenly seems more reasonable.
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