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Cherie Booth QC puts the "World on Trial" at Penn State Law

International lawyers and scholars of human rights law gathered at Penn State Law on September 20 to film the pilot episode of "World on Trial."

In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted without a single dissenting vote. It was the first time in human history that a set of individual human rights were recognized and internationally agreed upon, explained creator and host of the program Professor Randall Robinson of Penn State.

"Have nations that agreed to be bound by these laws obeyed these laws?” he asked. “We have exempted no nation from scrutiny.” He said that the actions of other nations that will be put on trial throughout the series, including Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Niger. 

Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard University makes his case before Judge Cherie Booth QC. 

“I was intrigued by the whole idea of this series of judging nations by the covenants they sign up to, what they do in practice, and in particular I was interested as a feminist and a person of faith,” said Judge Cherie Booth QC. She found time to participate in the program among her obligations as a mediator, arbitrator, and part-time judge. 

Televised, fictional proceedings focused on a real issue: whether France’s 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools violated international human rights law. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enumerates a positive, individual right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”  

The Arguments

French avocat Remy Schwartz claimed that the law protects Muslim girls from being pressured to wear a headscarf in school. He emphasized that the French legal system values secularism, or the keeping of religious belief out of the public sphere. “This is not a real issue today in France because no one contests the need for this rule in public school,” he said through a translator.

“Prosecution” witness John R. Bowen, the Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor of Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St. Louis, is a sociologist who has studied France in great depth and authored two books on the relationship between France and Islam. “No one can show that putting on a headscarf causes violence,” he said during his testimony. His view is that the law was about “opposing Islam by picking on an easy target,” i.e. girls. He said that the ban has caused many girls to be excluded from school because they would not abide by the ban.

Karima Bennoune explained that the headscarf ban protects girls by giving them protection against wearing a head covering to school. “Not being veiled has caused violence,” she said. “But the offense of not being veiled is only possible in the presence of veiling.” Bennoune is a scholar of international law and a professor of law and the Arthur L. Dickson Scholar at Rutgers School of Law in Newark.

Viewers in the United States will notice that some elements of a traditional courtroom trial have been skipped. No objections were made, witnesses at times appeared to speculate, and there was no interview on expert credentials. "We attempted to preserve the essence of trial by jury without burdening the proceedings with all the technical requirements that might apply in the real world,” said Penn State Law professor Gary Gildin, who teaches both trial advocacy and specializes in the study of individual rights. 

No Easy Answers

Audience member and graduate student of engineering Runkun Jiang absorbed the entire debate. “I didn’t find an answer,” he said. “It’s not just a question of law—it involves anthropology, sociology, and questions of racism.”

Professor Ogletree later said, “The idea of this series is phenomenal,” emphasizing that we need to address global issues publicly even if we all do not agree with one another. Professor Ogletree said that he was happy to participate in the program to work with his mentor and friend of thirty years, Randall Robinson. A teacher of advocacy and conflict resolution, Professor Ogletree was also drawn to the series for a practical reason. 

“I cherish a teachable moment,” he said. 

The Verdict

The five-person jury empaneled at Penn State found that by enacting a ban on ostentatious religious attire in a public school France had violated freedom of religious expression. The verdict is not final, as other juries will have the opportunity to weigh in. Juries in Istanbul, Turkey and Paris, France are scheduled to weigh in on this issue.  


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