France’s UPR, National Policies & Foreign Relations

On 21 January 2013, France underwent its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the first having been in 2008. You can watch the video of the whole thing (about 3.5 hours) here. I’ll write a follow-post to this one once the outcome report (see below) is published as my internet connection here in Cambodia is a bit too dodgy for internet streaming, but here’s a few thoughts about the UPR process in general (as it relates to foreign relations) and about the recommendations to France from its 2008 UPR.

First things first, for those that don’t know or unclear on what is a Universal Periodic Review … Since April 2008, the United Nations – through the Human Rights Council – has been reviewing the human rights practices of all countries in the world. Each state is reviewed every four and a half years, with 42 states being reviewed each year during 3 “working group” sessions of 14 states each. Results of each UPR are published in an “outcome report” which lists recommendations – provided by other states – the country under review is expected to address before its next UPR. The website UPR Info has a detailed explanation of the entire process for those interested in learning more, as well as all national reports, outcome reports, etc.

Many of the recommendations from France’s 2008 UPR focused on issues of racism and racial discrimination, and the rights of religious, ethnic and other minorities (others included issues related to various international treaties and prison conditions). Here’s some of the recommendations:

– To make efforts to enforce existing anti-discrimination legislation more effectively, and consider compiling statistics on ethnic minority groups in order to assess the extent and causes of inequality and evaluate the effectiveness of measures in place to address it (United Kingdom)

– To adopt a law banning incitement to religious and racial hatred (Egypt)

– To remove the prohibition on wearing the hijab in public schools (Canada); review the law which prohibits the wearing of clothing denoting religious affiliation in schools (Bangladesh)

– To consider how best the specific needs of individuals belonging to minorities could be addressed in order to ensure their equal enjoyment of all human rights, as provided for in the Constitution (Austria) ; to find effective ways of realizing the rights of individuals belonging to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities (Russian Federation)

– To review its position on the recognition of the rights of minorities and that it begin collecting data on the socio-economic status of the population, disaggregated by ethnic identity, confession and gender, in order to identify social problems affecting ethnic and religious minorities (Canada); to actively consider reviewing its position on minorities by recognizing and protecting them as minority groups (India)

– To actively consider undertaking more aggressive strategies to increase the number of people with immigrant heritage in the public service, particularly the police, civil service and the judiciary, in order to better reflect the broad diversity within France (India)

These are, strictly speaking, domestic issues but which have a significant impact on France’s external relations – particularly with  countries from which some of the religious and ethnic minorities mentioned in the recommendations may come from. In other words, if citizens from Country A are routinely discriminated against in France, chances Country A will have something to say about the domestic policies concerning the rights of minorities in France.

Side note: Without wanting to get into a philosophical debate, I do want to note that I am of the opinion that [some] domestic policies are important to a country’s foreign policy (in that they can impact, both negatively and positively, bilateral and multilateral relations) and that foreign  countries and non-governmental actors should be able to provide comments on those domestic policies. I know that not everyone agrees, so I just wanted to clarify the assumptions of this post.

Discrimination against religious minorities in France has gained notoriety worldwide in recent years because France’s so-called headscarf ban (Law No. 2004-22 of Mar. 15, 2004; the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination, ICAAD, has a good legal analysis, prepared for the UPR, on the law here), which has been extremely controversial both at home and abroad. The UPR recommendations above – notably Canada’s and Bangladesh’s – highlight the extent to which other countries have taken notice and have sought to reverse the law through diplomatic means.

The rise of religious extremism in many predominantly Muslim countries over the past two decades has led Western countries to fashion policies – of all kinds – that seek to minimize the threats that this rise is seen to pose to the “West” (I’m trying very hard here to be neutral … give me a break!). It seems logical, then, that it would be in France’s best interest to adopt domestic policies that show tolerance to religious minorities.

So what has been France’s response to these recommendations? In its National Report submitted ahead of the UPR, France outlines the steps it has taken towards implementing a number of the recommendations, including those related to racism and discrimination against minorities. However, France’s comments are caveated with the following explanation of French law (my translation):

French law rests on two essential principles from Article 1 of the Constitution: equality of the rights of citizens, “without distinction based on origin, race or religion,” and the unity and indivisibility of the nation. These principles have been underlined by the Conseil d’Etat and the Constitutional Council, which have recognized the indivisibility of the French Republic and the impossibility of recognizing specific rights for “any section of the population.” France considers that it is within the context of this mindset – grounded on equality before the law – that the rights of each are best guaranteed.

To which the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report answers:

While welcoming the statement by France that the lack of official recognition of minorities within French territory did not prevent the adoption of appropriate policies aimed at preserving and promoting cultural diversity, HR Committee remained unable to share the view of France that the abstract principle of equality before the law and the prohibition of discrimination represented sufficient guarantees for the equal and effective enjoyment by persons belonging to ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities of the rights protected by the Covenant.

Once it’s received the recommendations, each state has the opportunity to either accept or reject individual recommendations. Interestingly, France did not accept any of the recommendations from the 2008 UPR (nor did it actually reject them but provided responses). That being said, “accepting” the recommendations doesn’t necessarily mean much. Cambodia for instance, accepted all of the recommendations from its 2008 UPR and has done little to date to implement any of them. The Mid-Term Implementation report for Cambodia compiled by UPR Info notes that only 4 recommendations have been fully implemented, 10 partially, and the remaining 97 not at all. In contrast, according the Mid-Term Implementation report for France, France had fully implemented 20 recommendations and partially implemented 9, out of 36 total recommendations.

To be sure, some of the “fully implemented” recommendations are what I would consider “easy” recommendations to implement (“Pursue efforts to foster social integration and reinsertion of recidivist minors” for instance). In any case, the outcome report for France for the 2013 UPR will certainly be interesting, especially for evaluating whether or not France is improving its record with regards to the rights of minorities in the eyes of the international community. A summary by the UN OHCHR provides some insight into what it might look like. The recommendations put forward in this round of the UPR include:

  • To continue efforts to combat all forms of racial discrimination and xenophobia and ethnic profiling
  • To step up efforts to combat extremist, racism, hate speech and xenophobic acts and their manifestations
  • To ensure the realization of all human rights of minorities
  • To ensure that policies and practices regarding the dismantling of Roma settlements and the expulsion of migrant Roma conformed to European and international human rights law
  • To consider revising the law prohibiting people from wearing religious symbols in public schools and to undertake a comprehensive study on the repercussion of the ban on facial coverings in public spaces for immigrant women

Interestingly, the recommendations also seem to cover new issues, including human trafficking, child pornography, and equal pay for women. The report is due to be adopted by the UPR Working Group on France tomorrow, 25 January – I’ll update this post when it becomes publically available and when France has provided responses to the recommendations.

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