Rights & Democracy gets international backing for campaign against religious law in Ontario

MONTREAL – MAY 14, 2005 – The campaign against religious arbitration of family law in Ontario received important backing today from international human rights and women’s rights leaders as well as experts and academics gathered at Rights & Democracy in Montreal.

The unprecedented international support came out of an experts meeting organized by Rights & Democracy to establish a unified approach to defending and promoting women’s rights against the reversals advocated by religious fundamentalists and other non-state actors. Supporters backed Rights & Democracy’s view that allowing religious arbitration of family laws in Ontario could contravene Canada’s international human rights obligations and set a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize women’s rights nationally and internationally.

Yakin Ertürk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Souhayr Belhasseur, Vice President of France’s Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme, Ghaleb Bencheikh, President for France of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, Shana Swiss, President of Women’s Rights International, Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of Article 19 (UK), Marieme Helie-Lucas of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Pakistan’s Farida Shaheed, Coordinator of Shirgat Gah Women’s Resource Centre in Lahore, were among the 18 who pledged their support.

“Religious arbitration of family law would allow for inequality within the group or community to be justified on the basis of diversity,” said Ms Ertürk. “It leaves women at the mercy of groups who claim to represent religion or cultural, since it is generally women and youth whose rights get suppressed in the name of cultural authenticity.”

“This group reflects and corroborates Rights & Democracy’s concern that Ontario’s approval of religious arbitration of family law could have serious consequences for women’s rights beyond Canada,” said Ariane Brunet, Women’s Rights Coordinator at Rights & Democracy.

In a recent letter addressed to Michael Bryant, Ontario’s Attorney General, Rights & Democracy joined the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and the National Association of Women and the Law in condemning the conclusions reached by Ontario’s former attorney general, Marion Boyd, who was assigned by the Ontario government to study the question of religious arbitration in family and inheritance law.

Rights & Democracy said approving religious arbitration for family law disputes under Ontario’s Arbitration Act, as recommended in the Boyd report, would be tantamount to privatizing family law. In so doing, the Ontario government would delegate its own human rights obligations to religious, cultural and political actors responsible for the arbitration procedures in their communities.

Jean-Louis Roy, President of Rights & Democracy, said he believes that the federal and provincial governments must not adopt laws or policies that directly or indirectly discriminate against women.

“Canada and its provinces have an obligation to prevent discrimination resulting not only from government action or inaction, but also discrimination by private actors that impact on women’s legal rights, which could result from religious arbitration.”

International Supporters:

Gothom Arya, Asian Forum for Human Rights & Development
Souhayr Belhassen, Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme (FIDH)
Ghaleb Bencheikh, World Conference of Religions and Peace (France)
Roberto Blancarte, Professor, El Colegio de Mexico
Agnès Callamard, Article 19
Yakin Ertürk, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women
Lynn Freedman, Columbia University, New York
Marième Hélie-Lucas, Women Living Under Muslim Laws
Rashida Manjoo, South African Commission for Gender Equality
Philomena Mwaura, Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (Kenya)
Vahida Nainar, Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice, India
Ursula Owen, Index on Censorship
Robin Phillips, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights
Zazi Sadou, Algerian Assembly of Democratic Women
Farida Shaheed, Shirkat Gah – Women’s Resource Centre, Pakistan
Shana Swiss, Women’s Rights International
Vivienne Wee, Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong
Nira Yuval-Davis, University of East London