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French police on the Champs-Elysees, Paris, on New Year's Eve. (Photo: ninara/flickr/cc)

UN Human Rights Experts Blast France's "Excessive and Disproportionate" Cuts to Freedoms

Provisions imposed following last year's terrorist attacks must be amended 'to ensure they comply with international human rights law,' experts state.

Andrea Germanos

Joining a chorus of warnings over France's state of emergency and increase in state powers imposed following the November attacks in Paris, a group of United Nations human rights experts has now said that the measures "impose excessive and disproportionate restrictions on fundamental freedoms."

Among the concerns mentioned in the United Nations Special Rapporteurs' joint statement released Tuesday is that the state of emergency—extended until February 26—and new electronic surveillance law have no safeguards of guaranteeing rule of law as there was no prior judicial review.

That state of emergency, as The Intercept reported, "gives prefects, the French government’s local representatives, the ability to place people under house arrest, based merely on the suspicion of the intelligence service that they pose a threat to national security. They can also order police raids targeting any place where they think information about terrorism may be found, without a warrant." And while it "was initially supposed to mitigate the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, [it] has been used to target environmental and political activists who have nothing to do with radical Islam, let alone terrorism."

"Ensuring adequate protection against abuse in the use of exceptional measures and surveillance measures in the context of the fight against terrorism is an international obligation of the French State," the joint statement reads.

"We call on the authorities to revise the provisions and possible reforms adopted to [in the fight against terrorism] to ensure they comply with international human rights law," the experts, David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression; Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; and Joseph Cannataci, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, stated.

"While exceptional measures may be required under exceptional circumstances, this does not relieve the authorities from demonstrating that these are applied solely for the purposes for which they were prescribed, and are directly related to the specific objective that inspired them," they state.

The statement also calls out the recent house arrests of environmental activists, saying the actions "do not seem to adjust to the fundamental principles of necessity and proportionality."

Also expressing alarm—and taking legal action—on Tuesday regarding the controversial measures is the Paris-based League of Human Rights, which filed a complaint with France's top administrative court, urging the body to suspend all or part of the state of emerency.

The group cited French Prime Minister Manuel Valls' own words that the declaration was meant to be "a short term response." They also stated that such an exceptional declaration "cannot continue in a State of law."

Among the many civil liberties advocates who have blasted France's response to the attacks is Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, who stated in December, "There is a very real risk that the rights of the wider population are getting ensnared in a net supposed to be designed to identify only those posing a genuine threat. Many people are being targeted solely on the basis of their religious practices or vague suspicions."

"These emergency measures are already proving to be disproportionate. Extending them outside of a state of emergency"—as the president has pushed for—is a dangerous step," van Gulik stated, adding, "Using the terrorist threat to change the constitution opens the floodgates for emergency-like measures to become the new norm."

Paris-based rights group La Quadrature du Net also expressed concern in the wake of the state of emergency declaration, stating, "at a time when the government—despite hesitation even within itself—believes that it must react with even more 'emergency laws,' we fear that the shock waves shaking our society will shove it away from democracy."

"By preventing a quiet reflection on the wider causes of these heinous crimes, by not making a real assessment of how to combine security actions while protecting fundamental freedoms and our social structure, we will surely sacrifice both our freedom and our security," the organization stated.

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