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Debate over burqahighlights needfor bill of rights

Chris MichaelsenDebate over burqa
highlights need
for bill of rights

The burqa debate involves complex questions of individual and group rights, Dr Chris Michaelsen told the Australian Federation of Muslim Councils conference in Sydney in May 2010, speaking on behalf of CLA. But in Australia, there’s no national human rights framework against which to measure such important issues, he said

Burqa debate highlights need for bill of rights

Long-standing CLA member Dr Chris Michaelsen delivered an address on behalf of CLA at the 46th Annual Congress of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils in Sydney in May 2010.

Dr Michaelsen provided a human rights perspective on the controversial issue of banning burqas in public. The French and Belgian parliaments recently approved motions on banning face coverings. In Australia, too, some politicians like Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi called for a ban, saying the burqa was “un-Australian”.

Supporters of such a ban argue that the permanent concealment of the face is “unconducive” to social interaction in open societies. They also point to “security” considerations at a time when CCTV cameras play an important role in the protection of public order. Critics, on the other hand, regard a ban as “an attack on religious freedom” and assert that by prohibiting the burqa, one would impinge upon individual liberties and stigmatize Muslims, thereby aiding extremists worldwide.

Dr Michaelsen noted that the issue was highly complex and prone to oversimplification in public debate. From a human rights perspective, however, it was clear that a ban would engage several key rights such as the right to free development of one’s personality and the right to freedom of faith.

Yet, these rights are not absolute. Rather, they can be restricted by legislation as long as that restriction is suitable, necessary and strictly proportionate to achieve a community interest or protect the rights of others. Dr Michaelsen expressed doubt as to whether a general burqa ban would pass the proportionality test.

Unfortunately, any legislative measures in Australia, however, would not even have to be scrutinised against the backdrop of a human rights framework as there was still no formal human rights protection at the federal level. As such, the burqa controversy highlighted once again the insufficient protection of human rights in Australia.

Expressing disappointment that the Rudd government has chosen to ignore the core recommendation by the Brennan committee to adopt federal human rights legislation, Dr Michaelsen encouraged leaders in the Muslim community to increase their participation in civil society efforts to strengthen civil liberties and human rights in Australia. Such involvement would not only ensure that Muslim perspectives were incorporated into general advocacy efforts but would also lead to a fruitful exchange of ideas on issues of common interest and concern.

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