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France: UN expert says new terrorism laws may undermine fundamental rights and freedoms

23 May 2018


PARIS/GENEVA (23 May 2018) – A UN human rights expert has commended efforts by France to combat terrorism but has raised concerns about the effect anti-terrorism laws have on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights including liberty, privacy, association, movement and religious freedom.

The Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights in the context of countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, said she was particularly concerned that these laws may disproportionately affect, stigmatize and further marginalize citizens of the Muslim faith.  She recommended the Government create an independent body to oversee counter-terrorism and exceptional national security powers in the country.

Ni Aolain, who visited France from 14 to 23 at the Government’s invitation, acknowledged the serious and ongoing security challenges being experienced by France, and the indisputable necessity of providing security for all citizens. She underscored however, that this must be done in the respect of France’s commitment to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms. 

France has an extensive set of national security laws dating back several decades.  France’s new anti-terrorism law entered into force on 1 November 2017, formally ending a state of emergency that had lasted almost two years after the Paris attacks.

Acknowledging that there exists substantial legislative and judicial oversight the Special Rapporteur nonetheless highlighted concerns about limitations in accountability for human rights violations that may have been committed during the state of emergency. She expressed concern that there were insufficient checks and balances in place to protect the rights of persons subject to administrative measures specifically in respect of their rights to freedom of movement, privacy, family life, liberty and freedom of religious belief and practice. In the Special Rapporteur’s assessment the scope of these measures constitutes a de facto state of qualified emergency in ordinary French law. She was particularly mindful of the effects of these laws on the full enjoyment of rights by French citizens of the Muslim faith.

 “It is clear that the French Muslim community have been the community primarily subject to exceptional measures both during the state of emergency and the new law in tandem with other counter-terrorism measures,” Ní Aoláin said, highlighting, as an example, the closure of mosques as an encroachment on the enjoyment of religious freedom.

In the Special Rapporteur’s view, “It is deeply concerning that the Muslim minority community is being constructed as a per se ‘suspect community’ through the sustained and broad application of a counter-terrorism law,” she said at the end of a nine-day visit to France. 

“There is no doubt that the state may lawfully engage in restrictions to protect public order, but a clear tipping point to exceptionality arises when counter-terrorism measures engage profound, sustained and potentially disproportionate effects on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and civil liberties.

“France must continue to work in genuine partnership with all its citizens and take specific steps to prevent this conflation, which includes best practice on independent oversight, community consultation, prevention, and remedy when violations of human rights are established through legal and administrative action.”  

The Special Rapporteur acknowledged the exceptional work undertaken and refined by France in respect of victims of terrorism. Starting from the 1980s, France has maintained a comprehensive and robust victims’ compensation programme which is victim centred, and highly responsive to the needs of victims, she said.  France was also engaged in necessary and important initiatives to prevent radicalisation to violence in prison and educational settings.

Ní Aoláin underlined that France’s counter-terrorism action must continue to be rooted in, and comply with international law including human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, and must address not only manifestations of terrorism but conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism. 

Echoing the recommendations of the United Nations Global Strategy on Counter-terrorism adopted by consensus by all 193 States, she stressed that effective counter-terrorism measures and the protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing.