Thursday, 10 April 2014

Cult Wars at the Council of Europe

French deputy Rudy Salles is under fire for his report on protecting children from “sects”, to be debated by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) today. And some of his critics are aiming low.

Is Rudy Salles fair game? He is certainly in the firing line.

Proposals he has submitted to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on how to protect children from the excesses of “sects” have provoked the wrath of a small army of lobby groups.

And with his report going to a debate and vote this afternoon at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Salles' critics have in recent days stepped up the pressure.

They have denounced the measures set out in “The protection of minors against excesses of sects” as an attack on religious freedom and the rights of parents. And they want him stripped of his role of rapporteur, accusing him of bias.

The Council of Europe describes itself as the continent's leading human rights body: its 47 member states include all 28 European Union countries. All COE member states have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights.

So if the Council of Europe did adopt Salles' proposals it would, in theory at least, have tangible effects across the continent – all of which helps explain the ferocity of the attacks against him.

As well as lobbying PACE members, Salles' critics have posted a steady stream of declarations and letters denouncing Salles online, copies of which are sitting in the in-trays of the COE's senior officers.

Some of them tackle the issues rather than the man: but others are aiming lower.

French Scientologist Eric Roux tweeted a story about support for Salles' proposals from a member of Hungary's far-right Jobbik party, Tamás Gaudi Nagy.

The story itself appeared Tuesday at the website of the awkwardly named European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom – Articles. Roux himself sits on its steering committee.

In Paris, Salles sits as a deputy in the French National Assembly for the centre-right UDI party (Union des Démocrates et Indépendants). In Strasbourg, he is part of the European People's Party (EPP), the corresponding group at the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).

Politically then, he is a world away from populist, reactionary parties such as Jobbik.

Gaudi Nagy, a deputy for Jobbik in both the Hungarian parliament and in the Strasbourg chamber, belongs to none of the five PACE parliamentary groups at Strasbourg.

He does indeed support Salles' proposals – but so too do many other members of the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. They backed his report at a meeting in Paris last month.

The 84 members of the committee are drawn from all five political groups in the Assembly. But Gaudy is the one some of Salles’ critics have chosen to focus on.

While some critics have tried to smear Salles by association, others have accused him of violating his duty of neutrality as a rapporteur. They say he has been pushing his own agenda all along.

They have submitted two formal complaints against him to the Council of Europe in a bid to get him removed from his position as rapporteur.

The first complaint, filed on November 13 last year, comes from the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF Europe).

The second complaint was filed by European Coordination for Freedom of Conscience (CAPLC), a group that has devoted a lot of energy in the past to attacking the French line on cults, or sectes.

The thrust of the complaints against Salles echoes many of the issues that preoccupy Scientology in France.

A French conspiracy?

These critics identify Salles as a longtime associate of Georges Fenech, who until 2012 headed the French government's cults watchdog MIVILUDES: the Inter-Ministerial Mission for Vigilance and Action against Sectarian Excesses.

Scientology and other campaigners associate Fenech and MIVILUDES with the worst kind of intolerance to minority religious movements. They accuse him of leading a modern-day witch hunt against them.

Salles' report, they argue, is France's attempt to export its own repressive approach to the issue across the rest of Europe.

A PACE committee that appointed Salles to look into this issue for the COE in September 2011. It was not until November 2012 that FOREF filed its complaint against him.

In support of their case, FOREF attached a November 22, 2011 article from French local daily Nice Matin.

“This nomination is a first victory,” Salles told the paper.

“We will not be working as in the French parliament, where the commitment is very strong and where reports on 'cults' are voted through unanimously.”

At the Council of Europe different countries took different views on the issue, he continued: some of them viewed cults and religions in much the same way.

“So our work will be more difficult, but for the Council of Europe to look at this subject is already a lot, and the fact that the Rapporteur is French is a good thing too, because the French National Assembly, after several committees since 1995, is in the forefront on this question.”

The same article quoted Fenech as saying how much he was expecting from Salles' report.1

From this, the FOREF complaint concluded:

This shows that right from the beginning, Mr. Salles was in agreement with and was following a political and social agenda worked out in cooperation with the French Miviludes. It also shows that the result of the report was already predetermined by the rapporteur before any actual information collection and observation was done.

A few points need to be made here.

First, to present comments openly made to a newspaper as some kind of revelation is, to say the least, disingenuous. It is hardly a scoop that Fenech and Salles are colleagues with similar views in this field.

Since 1995, Salles has worked on three French parliamentary inquiries into cults. The last of them looked at the effects of cults on children and published its report in 2006 L’enfance volée, les mineurs victimes des sectes (Stolen Childhood: minors, victims of cults).

Salles was one of the secretaries to the committee of inquiry that drew up the report. Fenech was its president. Today, both men both sit on the French parliamentary study group into “sects”: Fenech its president, Salles one of its vice-presidents.

But the idea that this information was somehow hermetically sealed inside the French borders just doesn't hold water. This is old news, reheated.

That Salles has a position on this issue is to be expected, given his experience in the field: presumably he was appointed rapporteur because of his previous work.

That does not of itself mean that he neglected his duty of neutrality as a rapporteur – his comments to Nice Matin notwithstanding.

We contacted Salles for his response to the attacks last week, but so far we've not heard back from him. We are waiting too, to hear from the Council of Europe's press office about the status of those complaints against him.

While some of the attacks on Salles smack of bad faith, other critics have asked legitimate questions of the proposals in his report and their arguments deserve a closer look.

But that will have to wait until after this afternoon's debate in the Parliamentary Assembly.

The deputies in Strasbourg can choose to back the report as submitted; accept it with some or all of the amendments submitted by the Assembly's social affairs committee; or reject it entirely.

If they do choose to back it, then their recommendation will go before the COE's Committee of Ministers, where all 47 member states are represented. It is this body that decides COE policy and determines its budget.

You can follow the debate live, from some time after 3:30 pm local time Thursday (1330 GMT). See Sitting N°17 on this agenda.
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You can find a companion piece to this article, looking at Scientology's involvement in one of the groups attacking the Salles report, over at Tony Ortega's The Underground Bunker.
1   The second complaint, from the CAPLC, attached another cutting from Nice Matin from about the same time, which contained similar comments.