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October 9, 2013 10:19 am

Council of Europe Responds to Peres: Female Genital Mutilation and Circumcision Not ‘On Equal Footing’

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Preparation for a traditional Jewish circumcision. Photo: WikiCommons.

Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, responded on Wednesday to a letter sent earlier this week by Israeli President Shimon Peres asking Jagland to intervene in a decision made by the Council of Europe to ban ritual circumcision.

While the statement affirmed Jagland’s commitment to “children’s rights to physical integrity,” Jagland recognized the difference between the Jewish rite and female genital mutilation. Both concepts were referred to together in the wording of the decision, an “oversight,” his spokesman said, that may have been the source of an unintended sleight against Jews.

In his letter to longtime friend Peres, Jagland wrote, “While our organization is of course fully-committed to children’s rights to physical integrity, nothing in the body of our legally binding standards would lead us to put on equal footing the issue of female genital mutilation and the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons.”

“In fact, female genital mutilation is specifically banned as a form of gender-based violence under the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. There are no similar legal provisions regarding the practice of circumcision of young boys for religious reasons.”

To broadcast the difference Jagland was acknowledging, Daniel Holtgen, the spokesman for Secretary General Jagland, in Strasbourg, took to Twitter, saying: “Female genital mutilation violates human rights. Male circumcision does not.”

Speaking to the Algemeiner, Holtgen said, “If you look at the resolution, circumcision is not at its center, but rather there’s a broader theme of protecting children from domestic abuse, upholding children’s rights and guaranteeing the physical integrity of children. The author of this text listed European concerns over circumcision in the same paragraph as female genital mutilation, which, in my opinion, was an oversight that could have been recognized before it was voted upon.”

While FGM is not frequently practiced in Europe, Holtgen said the problem stems from immigrants who travel to their home countries, then return to Europe, which is how the practice gained notoriety on the continent.

“The purpose of the decision was not to irritate religious communities, Jewish nor Muslim, but to draw more attention to the rights of children in danger from the not commonplace practice of FGM, where we see a risk, and therefore, basically this was a mistake on part of the people who drafted it,” Holtgen said.

Marlene Rupprecht, the German MP who sponsored the recommendation that was approved by the Council of Europe, lost a re-election campaign, and is actually no longer on this board. Her office did not answer requests for further comment.

Her inclusion of circumcision with FGM was surprising in that this was a battle already lost in her native Germany.

Last year, a similar public outcry over calls to ban circumcision was sparked when a lower court ruled that practice should be considered under the rubric of “children’s rights to physical integrity.” After strong objections from Israel’s President Peres, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had the court’s decision overturned on the grounds that it was precluding Jews from freely practicing their religion, which was echoed by Jagland in the letter to Peres.

“For my part, I can assure you of the Council of Europe’s continued and unequivocal commitment to tolerance and freedom of religion, which is not only a moral imperative, but a right protected by the European Convention on Human Rights,” Jagland wrote.

The international outcry over the Council of Europe’s decision came after it voted last week, with a majority of 78 in favor, 13 opposed and 15 abstentions, approving a resolution calling for a ban on “certain operations and practices… before a child is old enough to be consulted.”  The Council of Europe’s rulings are recommendations to elected political bodies in Europe, not law, but they are followed widely as best practices.

This week, Peres had argued in his letter that “Jewish communities across Europe would be greatly afflicted to see their cultural and religious freedom impeded upon by the Council of Europe” and called on Jagland to reverse the decision.

When asked if Jagland would attempt to modify the language of the resolution, spokesman Holtgen said he would not, as it was not his role to do so. Jagland, he said, “is formally the head of the executive” and “doesn’t get involved in the Parliamentary Assembly’s resolutions.”

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