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Opinions of Friday, 14 May 2021

Columnist: 3tor_nam Skyler

My Eid-Ul-Fitr reflections: Human rights and security implications of actions by Wesley Girl’s SHS

The Christian Council of Ghana (CCG) and the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference (GCBC) The Christian Council of Ghana (CCG) and the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference (GCBC)

Introduction

'EID' means recurring happiness or festivity. Eid-ul-Fitr means a day of peace and thanksgiving, a day of forgiveness and moral victory, a day of festive remembrance.

Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the festival of fasting breaking, falls on the first day of shawwal, the tenth month of the Islamic calendar year, following the month of Ramadan, in which the Holy Quran was revealed and which is the month for fasting.

Eid spreads the message of peace in the world and more importantly within one’s self. With the establishment of peace within one’s heart, following Allah's law and leading a disciplinary life the true followers is graced by the Allah. Thus, Eid-ul-Fitr holds immense importance in the life of the Muslims.

Whilst celebrating this important day, we must remind ourselves of certain actions that are threatening our collective peace and security.

I am referring to the needless discrimination against Muslims on grounds of religion that is rearing its ugly head into our institutions.

This reached its alarming level following widespread reports of the decision taken by authorities of Wesley Girls’ SHS in preventing Muslim students from partaking in the Ramadan fast.

There have been reactions including statements by the Ghana Education Service, Christian Council of Ghana, Catholic Bishops Conference, and some revered Muslim scholars, among others.

Over the years in Ghana, Muslims and Christians have co-existed in peace, unity and harmony and worked together in diverse ways towards the development of the country.

Indeed, many functions are commenced with Christian prayers and concluded by Muslim prayers and vice versa in my Constituency, Madina and in many parts of Ghana.

Considering the current state of insecurity in many countries of the world today, including Israel and Pakistan, the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Christians in Ghana over the years have gone a long way to consolidate Ghana as a haven for peace and harmony, including a cherished democracy.

We must demand that what happened in Wesley Girl’s SHS must not repeat itself ever again in any public institution as that constitutes a serious threat to our peace and security as a people. We don’t need religious conflict and we don’t need to fuel or start one.

Intolerance and discrimination against Islam and minority religions can lead to violent conflict

As Muslims all over the world and especially Ghana and my constituency Madina mark this very important day, I decided to pen down these reflections for our consideration as a nation. To my brothers and sisters of Islamic faith, I wish you barka de sallah.

I pray that you will find space in your heart to give true meaning to Islam and this day and forgive the Wesley Girl’s SHS and all others whose actions amount to discrimination against Islam and keep praying that we can all live in peace despite our religious diversity.

For those who do such things, we as Human Rights Watchers know that it is usually not targeted at a particular religion per se, it is just a few intolerant people who discriminate against not only Muslims but all other minority groups and religious beliefs which actions violates the right to religion in our Constitution.

A case in point was what happened at Achimota Senior High School where brilliant students placed there were denied admissions only on grounds of physical appearance, even though they said they wore dreadlocks because of their religious demands. I know of several of our young female Muslims who suffer from serious discrimination on because of their hijabs.

This discrimination must stop. Democracies thrive on divergence. Freedom to practice and manifest one’s religion is a fundamental right and our nation and institutions particularly public funded and supported institutions including schools must begin to realize this reality and order their rules, regulations and bylaws to respect these values of democracy.

This is what will bring peace and stability. The minority group in any society whether on religion, economic status or culture will not remain silent forever. Their counter response can be very violent and devastating.

That is why as a nation, we must be warned not to travel that path. We can all live in peace respecting divergent views and religious practices without compromising our own faith.

Legal Regime of Religious rights in Ghana

First, Article 1(2) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates that individuals are free to profess and practice their religion, and does not designate a state religion.

Article 12(1) of the 1992 Constitution provides that “the fundamental human rights and freedoms enshrined in this Chapter shall be respected and upheld by the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary and all other organs of government and its agencies and, where applicable to them, by all natural and legal persons in Ghana, and shall be enforceable by the Courts as provided for in this Constitution.

Article 12(2) also states that “every person in Ghana, whatever his race, place of origin, political opinion, color, religion, creed or gender shall be entitled to the fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual contained in this Chapter but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest. This implies that any laws and practices that do not allow people to freely practice their religion would amount to a breach of the Constitution.

Regulations not allowing Ramadan in Public Schools discriminatory and violates the 1992 Constitution.

According to Article 11 of the Constitution Sources of laws in Ghana begins with the Constitution. It is our Constitution that gives validity to laws and practices particular of institutions in the public space.

No school can legislate to discriminate against people on grounds of religion. That is why what happened in Achimota SHS was wrong and what just happed as Wesley Girls SHS was equally wrong.

This is further supported by Article 1(2) of the Constitution which provides that any law which is contrary to the constitution cannot stand.

Such a law will be null and void. It also means that any by-law of any public funded school, which insists on any particular religious practice is null and void.

The law provides that “This Constitution shall be the supreme law of Ghana and any other law found to be inconsistent with any provision of this Constitution shall. To the extent of the inconsistency, be void” Any law stopping Ramadan observance as was in the case of Wesley Girls SHS was constitutionally null and void.

Non-discrimination

When a school or an institution is supported by the public purse, it is important for to remind ourselves that contribution to the public purse through taxation does not take religion into account. All Ghanaians pay their taxes regardless of their religion.

If those taxes are used to support an educational institution, that institution cannot turn around to discriminate against others on grounds of religion.

It is for this reason that Article 17(1) of the constitution provides that “All persons shall be equal before the law. Equality before the law means equality before the law. It means that we have equal protection of the law regardless of our religion.

The Constitution goes on to further provide against non-discrimination on grounds of religion. It says in Article 17(2) “A person shall not be discriminated against on grounds of gender, race, color, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status.

For the avoidance of doubt the constitution goes further to give additional information on what amounts to discrimination in Article 17 (3) which defined discrimination as follows: “"discriminate" means to give different treatment to different persons attributable only or mainly to their respective descriptions by raw, place of origin, political opinions, color, gender, occupation, religion or creed, whereby persons of one description are subjected to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of another description are not made subject or are granted privileges or advantages which are not granted to persons of another description.”

Where there are right holders then there are duty bearers. In the case of Wesley Girls SHS, the Muslim students were the right holders and the school administration was the duty bearer.

That is why the posture of the school to deny the children from observing Ramadan which was a religious obligation to them was discriminatory as they don’t do same to other students of other faith.

International guarantees of Religious rights

In post-colonial Africa, Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and peoples’ Right (the Banjul Charter) established in 1981 provides that: “Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be guaranteed.

No one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms.

Also, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief."

Also based on Article 18 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice".

Article 1(1) of the 1981 Declaration of the General Assembly states that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice."

According to general comment 22 paragraph 3 of the Human Rights Committee "Article 18 does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom of thought and conscience or the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one's choice".

Paragraph 5 further states that: "the Committee observes that the freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one's religion or belief."

Also, according to the Human Rights Committee general comment 22 paragraph 4: "The freedom to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching encompasses a broad range of acts.

The concept of worship extends to ritual and ceremonial acts giving direct expression to belief, as well as various practices integral to such acts, including the building of places of worship, the use of ritual formulae, and objects, the display of symbols, and the observance of holidays and days of rest.

The observance and practice of religion or belief may include not only ceremonial acts but also such customs as the observance of dietary regulations, the wearing of distinctive clothing or head coverings, participation in rituals associated with certain stages of life, and the use of a particular language, customarily spoken by a group.

In addition, the practice and teaching of religion or belief includes acts integral to the conduct by religious groups of their basic affairs, such as freedom to choose their religious leaders, priests and teachers, the freedom to establish seminaries or religious schools and the freedom to prepare and distribute religious texts or publications."

Misapplication of Exceptions to Personal Liberty under Article 14(1e) of the Constitution

Also, Article 14(1e) of the Constitution states “every person shall be entitled to his personal liberty and no person shall be deprived of his personal liberty except in the following cases and in accordance with procedure permitted by law – for the purposes of the education or welfare of a person who has not attained the age of eighteen years.

Thus, contrary to some public statements and opinions, the Constitution provides clear solution on how such matters must be addressed.

According to Merriam-Webster, personal liberty is the freedom of the individual to do as he pleases limited only by the authority of politically organized society to regulate his action to secure the public health, safety, or morals or of other recognized social interests.

Beyond the religious argument discussed above, many scholars have also argued that the systemic discrimination on grounds of religion meted out to students of public schools is supported by the exceptions provided to the right to personal liberties under Article 14(1) of the Constitution.

For the avoidance of doubt, the Constitution provides in the said article that “every person shall be entitled to his personal liberty and no person shall be deprived of his personal liberty except in the following cases and in accordance with procedure permitted by law – for the purposes of the education or welfare of a person who has not attained the age of eighteen years.

It must be noted that the context of personal liberties that is sought to be limited has to do with confinement of a person.

Thus, for each of the exceptions in Article 14(1)[(a),(b),(c),(d),(e)], it has to do with confinement for the purpose of execution of sentence, contempt of Court, medical condition, education, and welfare of Under 18 persons, and prevention of crime generally.

This provision with all due respect does not limit the right to freedom of religion as those rights are personal to its holders, are matters of personal choice, belief, thought, and faith.

Thus, it is erroneous to construe this provision as giving a carte blanche to introduce rules and regulations and practices that are injurious to people’s personal religion, and the right to manifest same.

Even where people’s personal liberties are taken away by virtue of the above exceptions, they still have rights to their religion.

That is why for instance in prison, there are different denominations of churches, mosques, and any other form of belief. It is therefore untenable to point to Article 14(1e) for the intolerance and discrimination on grounds of religion by these overzealous school administrators.

Religious Freedom Report 2018

According to the 2018 international religious freedom report, “Muslim leaders continued to raise concerns about some publicly funded Christian mission schools which required female Muslim students to remove their hijabs and Muslim students to participate in Christian worship services, despite a Ministry of Education policy prohibiting these practices”.

The report further states that approximately 71 percent of the population is Christian, 18 percent Muslim, and 6 percent belongs to other religious groups or has no religious beliefs. Smaller religious groups include the Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Eckankar, and Rastafarianism.

The report further states that as a result of religious tolerance, the Ministry of Education includes compulsory religious and moral education in the national public education curriculum.

There is no provision to opt out of these courses, which incorporate perspectives from Islam and Christianity.

There is also an Islamic education unit within the ministry responsible for coordinating all public education activities for Muslim communities.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for individuals’ freedom to profess and practice any religion. These rights may be limited for stipulated reasons including defense, public safety, public health, or the management of essential services.

Hence, the general stands by Wesley Girls’ Senior High School is discriminatory to the extent that it includes Muslim girls who may be eighteen years and above as contained in the Constitution.

Lack of Clarity in Directives despite Clear Constitutional provisions

The Ghana Education Service (GES) in a statement dated May 1 2021 and signed by the Head of Public Relations Unit, Cassandra Twum Ampofo, directed the Management of Wesley Girls’ High School and other schools preventing Muslim students from participating in the Ramadan fast to allow them to do so.

However, statements from Christian Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) including the Catholic Bishops Conference, Christian Council, and Methodist Church of Ghana, have supported the decision by Wesley Girls’ Senior High School to disallow Muslim students from participating in the Ramadan fast.

It is necessary for such Christian religious organizations to not only seek to obey the laws of the land, but exhibit a strong sense of commitment towards religious tolerance and accompanying freedoms as enshrined in the 1992 Constitution of the Republic.

The Church has a responsibility to unite the nation particularly at this critical period of time, as the nation battles with socio-economic and development challenges instead of seek to divide us further particularly on religious grounds.

Conclusion

As our brothers celebrate EID, I wish them the best of the season and ask that we continue to live in peace and harmony. Tolerating each other’s religion and religious practices would not in any way reduce our own commitment and obligation to God/Allah.

In all, let peace prevail and let’s love one another as we have been commanded by God/Allah. Violent religious conflict affects communities and societies in various ways. People get killed and maimed and others left wounded.

Businesses are destroyed and the economy dips into irredeemable recessions as such conflicts affect productivity in all sectors, several churches, mosques, schools, vehicles private homes and hospitals among many others are destroyed by fundamentalists.

Let us be guided by experiences in other parts of the world and not plunge our nation into religious conflicts.

As a student of Human Rights, Conflict and Peace studies, a lawyer with human rights interest and a legislator I have a solemn duty to this nation to raise this red flags so we can be guided as a people.

Let those who have ears, listen to these words and accordingly be guided.

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