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Belgium unites to ban the burqa

Despite political chaos, Belgium's parliament passes a nationwide ban of burqas and niqabs almost unanimously.

Addressing himself to all governments enthusiastic about pursuing their own measures, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, has come out against the bans on human rights grounds.

“Rulings anywhere that women must wear the burqa should be condemned,” Hammarberg wrote, “but banning such dresses here would be wrong."

Hammarberg noted nations’ obligations to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights and cited legal precedents that go against such limitations. In addition, Hammarberg wrote that ban supporters “have not managed to show that these garments in any way undermine democracy, public safety, order or morals.”

Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said she has been a bit surprised by how little debate consideration of the ban generated in Belgium. Her organization wants to make some noise about it. “It’s an issue that says a lot about the tensions in European society today between Muslims and non-Muslims,” she said.

And while Belgium may be a foregone conclusion, Sunderland said HRW will continue working in other countries, trying to “frame the debate from a human rights perspective which we hope can inform better legislative decisions, at the very least.”

That may be an uphill battle, if new figures on public opinion toward Islam are a fair indication. The Spanish BBVA Foundation just released a survey taken in 12 European Union states that showed 52.6 percent of respondents were "opposed" or "totally opposed" to what the study called a “veil” in any public places. Bulgaria had the highest level of opposition with 84.3 percent, followed by France with 68.7 percent.

Belgium was not far behind with 59.9 percent of its public in favor of a ban. But in a couple of weeks, it could be first to make that the policy of 100 percent of Belgians.