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CanadaUN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill

01:15  23 may  2019
01:15  23 may  2019 Source:   cbc.ca

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High-ranking human rights monitors with the United Nations are concerned the Quebec government will violate fundamental freedoms if it moves The letter says the province's so-called secularism bill , which the Coalition Avenir Québec government is rushing to pass by next month, threatens freedoms

The Quebec government’s proposed secularism legislation is raising concerns about fundamental freedoms in Canada’s French-speaking province UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill © Jean-Marc Ferre/Reuters Three UN legal experts, known as rapporteurs, signed and sent a letter written in French last week to the Canadian mission in Geneva,

High-ranking human rights monitors with the United Nations are concerned the Quebec government will violate fundamental freedoms if it moves ahead with legislation to limit where religious symbols can be worn.

Three UN legal experts, known as rapporteurs, signed and sent a letter written in French last week to the Canadian mission in Geneva. They asked the diplomats to share the letter with Quebec's legislature.

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill © Jonathan Montpetit/CBC The bill has already attracted widespread criticism from minority groups and anti-racism advocates in Quebec, who fear it will, among other things, significantly limit where Muslim women who wear hijab can work.

The letter says the province's so-called secularism bill, which the Coalition Avenir Québec government is rushing to pass by next month, threatens freedoms protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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One of the United Nations human rights observers who raised concerns about Quebec 's proposed secularism law says while it's "premature" to discuss the impact of Bill 21 on Quebec society, it comes at a time of increased intolerance against minorities around the world. Fernand de Varennes, the UN 's

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill . Several groups in Quebec have repeatedly warned the government that while Bill 21 doesn't single out a particular religion, Muslim women are likely to be more affected than others.

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill © Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press Quebec Premier François Legault has said the secularism legislation is moderate and represents the desires of a majority in the province.

"We are particularly concerned … about consequences for those people susceptible of being disadvantaged or excluded from a job or public position because of the potential effects of the proposed law," the letter reads.

Tabled in March, Bill 21 will bar public teachers, government lawyers and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work. It will also require government services to be received without religious garments covering the face.

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The bill has already attracted widespread criticism from minority groups and anti-racism advocates in Quebec, who fear it will, among other things, significantly limit work opportunities for Muslim women.

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UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill . Ola, an elementary school teacher working on contract, talks about her problems with Quebec 's secularism law during a news conference in Montreal on Sept.

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The Quebec government maintains the legislation is moderate and represents the desires of a majority in the province.

But according to the UN observers, if passed, the bill could violate rights to freedom of conscience and religion, as well as a number of equality guarantees contained in the covenant.

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill © Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has criticized the bill, he hasn't indicated whether the federal government will intervene if it is passed.

'Extremely inappropriate'

The letter also notes the bill doesn't define what a religious symbol is, adding that it would be "extremely inappropriate" for a government to decide whether a symbol is religious or not.

Critics of the bill, including several teachers unions, highlighted this point repeatedly during the six days of legislative hearings that wrapped up last week.

It is unclear, for instance, whether the Star of David is a religious or political symbol.

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In May, three UN legal experts joined them by sending a letter to the Canadian mission in Geneva which said that the bill threatens freedoms protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights . UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill .

Bill 21 prevents judges, police officers, teachers and public servants holding some other positions from wearing symbols such as the kippah, turban, or hijab while at Like similar legislation introduced by previous Quebec governments in recent years to bolster state secularism , it has led to a fierce debate.

The letter goes on to take issue with the requirement that government services be received with an uncovered face, a measure that singles out Muslim women who wear the niqab.

"The bill constitutes a restriction, or limitation, of the freedom to express religion or belief," the letter reads.

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

At multiple points, the letter reminds the Canadian government that it is bound by various human rights instruments, including the covenant on civil and political rights, which it signed in 1976. Quebec is also bound by these agreements.

The letter is signed by the rapporteur for minority relations, Fernand de Varennes; the rapporteur for racism, E. Tendayi Achiume; and the rapporteur for religious freedom, Ahmed Shaheed.

It closes with a series of questions about how minority rights will be protected once the legislation is passed. The rapporteur also wants to know how minority groups will be consulted in the legislative process.

Of the 36 groups and individuals who were invited by the Quebec government to take part in the legislative hearings for the bill, only two represented religious communities in the province.

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Rules broken, lawyer says

Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal human rights lawyer with extensive experience working with the UN, said it is noteworthy the letter was written in French.

"The United Nations is signalling … that majority will is constrained or bound by or limited by rules about how you treat minorities," she told CBC News after consulting the letter.

"And those rules have been broken in this case. They have manifestly been broken in this case."

UN human rights observers warn Quebec about secularism bill © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the bill's sponsor, has received the letter and is "analyzing it in detail," a spokesperson said Tuesday.

The federal government has not responded to a request for comment.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has criticized the bill (as have the federal NDP and Conservatives), he hasn't indicated whether the federal government will intervene if it is passed.

The letter itself carries no legal weight. But it could provide ammunition to groups who will seek to challenge the law before the UN's Human Rights Committee, Eliadis said.

Such challenges can take several years before the committee offers a decision (known as a "view"). When they are delivered, though, the federal government comes under considerable pressure to comply.

But beyond its possible legal ramifications, the UN letter indicates that what is at stake with Bill 21 is Quebec's reputation as a tolerant society, Eliadis said.

"I think the average person should care," she added.

"I think many people in Quebec do care because they understand that what the Quebec government is setting aside are our most fundamental values as a nation."

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