Panellists discuss religion and human rights at Sakharov Debate in UK
On 3 December 2014, the European Parliament Information Office in the United Kingdom once again hosted its annual Sakharov Prize Debate at Europe House in Westminster.
This year, the subject of our debate was religion and human rights. Without a doubt we knew the nature of the topic itself would generate considerable interest given its universal relevance. Furthermore, London makes for a premier debating ground given its multicultural make-up and a prominent position in both the European and international spheres.
Armed with a plethora of experience hosting seminars and educational sessions for a variety of audiences, we were very pleased to secure the participation of some of the most fascinating speakers in the fields of politics, religion, law and academia. Each of our guests presented a unique point of view that shaped the night into a memorable event with plenty of food for thought for our audience.
University College London's Dr Myriam Hunter-Henin, who specialises in religious and family law, pointed to a multitude of recent cases of individual rights to manifest religious beliefs, such as Ladele v Islington, which concerned a marriage registrar refusing to wed same-sex couples on the grounds of religious beliefs.
"Had the British state allowed the few of its agents to be exempt from conducting same-sex civil ceremonies, then the message of equality conveyed by the British state would have been tainted. Same sex couples would be symbolically set apart" Dr Hunter-Henin said.
The panellists also discussed the French burqa ban as a conflict between individual rights based on religious belief and social norms motivated by common security, noting that sometimes minority needs are set aside to protect majority preferences.
"The Muslim groups in the UK were alarmed given the similar calls...it was often seen as an anti-Muslim measure" - Catriona Robertson, convener at the London Boroughs Faiths Network, commented.
Ms Robertson, who is no stranger to finding dialogue with members of different faiths living in same communities, also said that having members of different religious organisations holding positions of power does not automatically lead to unequal treatment of certain religious communities.
She argued that the Lords Spiritual (the representatives of the Church of England in the House of Lords) have adapted to today's standards and have "gracefully accepted" their changed role in society, suggesting there is no need to forcefully separate the Church from the State for fear of human rights abuse.
Can Yeginsu, who specialises in public international law and human rights law, echoed the argument: "Does the presence of said bishops lead to a system of law where their religious interests have priority over other religious interests? Experience shows that it does not."
These issues are further complicated when decisions of UK and other national courts are influenced, or challenged by, international judiciary bodies like the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights, which is part of the Council of Europe (47 member states) and not the EU (28 states).
Mr Yeginsu said that he believes most of the above mentioned cases are those of direct discrimination, which can be dealt with at the national level, rather than those of international human rights law.
On the other hand, Edward McMillan-Scott, who was a Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and Humber in 1984-2014 and Vice President of the EP responsible for Human Rights and Democracy, listed topics that do require the attention of international courts - the spectre of the ISIL, the recent reports of fundamentalist school teaching in Birmingham and the religious conflict in Turkey.
"I deplore states which describe themselves in line with a particular religion. I think religion should inform politics, not dictate it" he said. But he agreed that one country being a party of the Council of Europe, but not the EU legal order, poses a conundrum.
Mr McMillan-Scott also brought the debate to the subject of Female Genital Mutilation, a serious human rights violation that is frequently reported in the British media. The panellists unanimously agreed that FGM, despite its perceived motivation, is not in fact a form of religious practice.
"It is a misconception to think most Muslim people would practice FGM" Ms Robertson said. "Go to the Muslim Council of Britain's website and you will see that FGM is illegal, it is horrible, it is not Islamic."
But despite the laws against FGM introduced some 30 years ago, the first prosecution was only brought last March," the moderator, Martine Croxall observed.
"By comparison, in France there have been hundreds of successful prosecutions."
The event lived up to expectations, sparking a wide array of questions from the members of the public. We would like to thank every single participant for taking the time to join us in an exchange of ideas on such a diverse, controversial and yet extremely timely and significant subject.
Looking ahead into next year, one thing is for certain: the people in the UK may come from a multitude of backgrounds but they will not shy away from a stimulating debate.