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UN Rights Boss Denounces Swiss Ban On Minarets

Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights: "I hesitate to condemn a democratic vote..."
GENEVA (Reuters) -- The top UN rights official said today that Switzerland's ban on building minarets was "deeply divisive" and at odds with its international legal obligations.

Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement that prohibiting an architectural structure linked to Islam or any religion was "clearly discriminatory."

Swiss voters adopted the ban in a referendum on November 29, defying the government and parliament which had rejected the right-wing initiative as violating the Swiss constitution, freedom of religion, and a cherished tradition of tolerance.

Pillay said the ban was "discriminatory, deeply divisive and a thoroughly unfortunate step for Switzerland to take, and risks putting the country on a collision course with its international human rights obligations."

A UN human rights body, composed of independent experts, said last month the ban would bring Switzerland into "noncompliance" with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it has ratified.

Pillay's spokesman, Rupert Colville, was asked at a news briefing whether this meant that Switzerland was violating the pact. "It's not quite the same as saying it's a violation, but it is a very short step short of saying that," he said.

Pillay's office might be prepared to submit an opinion if critics of the ban were to challenge it in a court, he said.

The Council of Europe said on November 30 the ban raised concern over whether fundamental rights, protected by international treaties, should be the subject of popular votes.

A group of politicians from the SVP, the country's biggest party, and the conservative Federal Democratic Union gathered enough signatures to force the referendum on the initiative, which opposed the "Islamization of Switzerland."

Its campaign poster showed the Swiss flag covered in missile-like minarets and the portrait of a woman covered with a black chador and veil associated with strict Islam.

"I hesitate to condemn a democratic vote, but I have no hesitation at all in condemning the anti-foreigner scare-mongering that has characterized political campaigns in a number of countries, including Switzerland, which helps produce results like this," said Pillay, a former South African judge.

'Great Sadness'

Switzerland, a country of 7.7 million, is home to more than 300,000 Muslims, mainly from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Turkey.

Turkey joined a chorus of international concern at the vote, calling it "an unfortunate development against fundamental humanitarian values and freedoms."

"This decision by the Swiss people caused great sadness in our country," the Foreign Ministry said, added it expected Switzerland "to take steps to correct this situation."

Switzerland's biggest-selling daily newspaper "Blick" defended the vote, saying the minaret ban does not reject religious freedom and immigrants needed to make more of an effort to integrate in Swiss society.

"We should not be ashamed of ourselves!" Blick's front-page headline said today.

"We need a clear answer to the question of whether Muslims accept our legal system without any ifs or buts," it said in an editorial.