9 Aug 2004                                             

H.E Mr Lebohang K. Moleko and French

President

Executive Board and
Esteemed members of the French National Human Rights Committee for
UNICEF

 

 

           

 

Re: STOP FRANCE FROM FORCING CHILDREN TO BREAK THE LAW NEXT MONTH

 

 

Dear Sir,

 

In under three weeks, a school-going French Sikh child will bear a very heavy burden on his shoulders: should he leave his Turban at home or does he break the law and walk through the school gates with his Turban on his head.

 

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world which encompasses  civil rights and freedoms, family environment, basic health and welfare, education, leisure and cultural activities and special protection measures. The very “foundation principal” that underpin the rights of the children are going to be violated in under 3 weeks. The best interests of the child; right to survival and development are at stake.

 

A law has been passed by France, which will ban the wearing of articles of faith in public schools.  This law comes into effect on Sept 2nd when the new school year begins for 14 year-old Jasvir Singh of Bobigny, a Paris suburb.

 

In a phone interview with UNITED SIKHS a nonplussed Jasvir Singh says he will defy the law of the land but not the law of his FAITH. He believes that all French Sikh schoolchildren will defy the law.

 

It is a heavy burden for a child to bear but Jasvir Singh bears it alone. He knows that his elders at home and throughout the world have tried and failed to fight for his right to wear his Turban. His parents wait patiently yet impatiently for the French Government to deliver the promise she made to the Sikh community, both in private and at public and diplomatic levels - that a Sikh schoolchild will not be asked to remove his Turban.

 

This law will also burden a Muslim, Jewish and Christian child who will be banned from wearing his/her ‘religious symbols’ when French public schools reopen in September.  This must be the first time, unprovoked and in peacetime, that a right to practise ones religion has been stripped in one fell swoop.

 

This must be the fist time ever, that children, vulnerable members of society, have been the target of an unfair law, which they will be forced to break.

 

What is UNICEF’s duty to Jasvir Singh and many like him?

 

UNITED SIKHS calls upon UNICEF to intervene and ensure that no child is forced to break the law of his land. These children need to be protected, as they are a vulnerable group who are being forced by virtue of their religious convictions, to break the law and face expulsion.

 

UNITED SIKHS, a global human development organisation led the Right To Turban campaign with a global petition, barely a week after President Jacques Chirac announced that he would be tabling a bill that would ban the wearing of ‘religious symbols’ at public schools.

See http://www.unitedsikhs.org/rtt/index.htm

 

UNITED SIKHS directors have attended all meetings with the French government called by and for the French Sikh community. The French Sikhs have moved no further forward from where they stood when the bill was tabled in Parliament.

 

The Sikh Turban is required to be worn by a Sikh who has long unshorn hair tied as a top- knot, in order to cover his head.

 

We submit that to ask a Sikh to remove his/her Turban would be asking him/her to perform an impossible act, for the reasons outlined below. 
 
A Sikh is inseparable from his or her Turban, which has been worn for centuries to cover his/her unshorn hair. The Sikh faith promotes a follower's devotion to God. To a Sikh his/her unshorn hair and turban are mandatory but not every turban wearing person is a Sikh. Unshorn hair, and by extension the Turban, is not a symbol or an article of clothing, as it does not symbolize: it is part of his/her being a Sikh.  
 
The Sikh Turban is an outward commitment of the mission given to all Sikhs to fight for truth, stand up against tyranny, and protect the weak – and by so doing to uphold "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity". 
 
 
 
The Sikh Faith:
The Sikh faith is monotheistic and propounds a life encompassing three virtues – earning an honest living, sharing what you earn, and worshipping the Supreme Creator.  Today, the Sikh faith is the fifth largest faith group in the world and its people number 25 million around the world.
 
Past and Present:
Despite the fact that there are over 10,000 Sikhs residing in France, the Stasi commission failed to consult or take into account the consequences this proposal poses to the French-Sikh population. Therefore, the Sikh community in France was unable to put its case for wearing the Turban to the commission.
 
Historically, Sikhs have gallantly fought against oppression while wearing their Turbans. The Sikhs have a long and glorious relationship with France that dates back to the 19th century when military officers from Napoleon’s armies assisted Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Panjab in modernizing the Sikh army. Later, hundreds of thousands of Sikh soldiers fearlessly fought for French freedom during both World Wars, laying down their lives for the noble values that epitomize France’s principles of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity".
 
While wearing the Turban, Sikh soldiers fought for the Allied Forces, including the United States, England and France, in World War I and II. More than 100,000 Sikhs died to protect the honor and integrity of people of all faiths. It is not only sad but ironical and extremely painful that the community which fought for the freedom of France wearing their Turbans, now has to fight for the freedom to wear the Turban in France. 
 
Sikhs in France:
The Sikh community of France embraces the strong values of French culture and history. Their history resonates with the right to defend "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity". For Sikhs, their commitment to their faith is the very basis for loyalty towards a just nation/republic. There is no conflict of affairs between the two entities, faith and nation, which is prevalent as in the role-played by the Sikhs in history especially in World War I and II. In fact, Sikhs have successfully integrated into French society and have adopted French culture as their own. The Sikhs consider France as their homeland and, if called upon, are ready to repeat their sacrifices for France. 
 
International Laws, Treaties and Resolutions:
We submit that if the proposed ban on religious dress includes the ban on wearing the Sikh Turban, it would be a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights - the right to manifest one’s religion.
 
In our opinion, the secular nature of the French state can be secured by preventing the state itself from imposing or endorsing any religion.  The proposed ban goes further and forces an individual to violate his or her own conscience.  It seems to rest on a largely symbolic rationale, as a signal of the kind of society that France is.  But it is precisely such symbolic statements that cannot be imposed on an individual by the state under the European Convention. 
 
Although the issue is primarily one that falls under Article 9, also of potential relevance are Article 8 (respect for private life, which includes dress); Article 10 (freedom of expression, which includes symbolic speech); and Article 14 (freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of other Convention rights).
 
France as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is committed to encourage and respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the Right to Religion.  
 
We also wish to highlight the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights (June, 1993), of which France was a signatory, which called for the comprehensive elimination of all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Further, France is a signatory to the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR).

Under para 67 of the WCAR report, France jointly declared: ‘We recognize that members of certain groups with a distinct cultural identity face barriers arising from a complex interplay of ethnic, religious and other factors, as well as their traditions and customs, and call upon States to ensure that measures, policies and programmes aimed at eradicating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance address the barriers that this interplay of factors creates’

 

Let us not forget…

 

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the trade unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.              – Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984) 

 

Yours truly:

Mejindarpal Kaur, Director (00-91-9815402260) (mejindarpal.kaur@unitedsikhs.org)
Kudrat Singh, Director (00-33-147008441) (kudrat.singh@unitedsikhs.org)

 

Email: contact@unitedsikhs.org

Cc: UNITED SIKHS Directorates (US, Eu, Asia)
Cc: Canadian Coalition for the Rights of a Child
Cc: Prime Minister of India Mr. Manmohan Singh
Cc: Child Rights Information Network
Cc: Childwatch Database on Research and Documentation
Cc: Human Rights Watch

Cc: Louis Arbour,United Nations High Commissoner on Human Rights

 

For more information on the Right to Turban campaign, please link to:
http://www.unitedsikhs.org/rtt/index.htm


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