Belgium approves law creating long overdue human rights institution

Association and Expression 

Belgium approves law to establish a long overdue National Human Rights Institution 

In April 2019, 26 years after it was first proposed, the Foreign Relations Committee of the Belgian Federal Parliament voted in favour of the creation of an independent national institute for human rights. On 25th April 2019, the Belgian Parliament adopted a law on the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) in Belgium.

The role of the new institution is to act at the federal a level and will fill current gap in ensuring protection of all human rights. Until now, only certain rights were covered by existing human rights bodies, such as the inter-federal institute against discrimination Unia and the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men. As the new law highlights, central to the work of the new institution will be the facilitation of dialogue and cooperation with relevant existing institutions.

The move was welcomed as a positive first step by the United Nations and other international organisations such as the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI), a network of NHRIs across Europe, and Amnesty International.

While human rights are comparatively well respected in Belgium, organisations that ensure adherence to human rights obligations are missing in a number of areas, including freedom of expression.

According to Olivier Deschutter of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural affairs, said to the media outlet Le Soir : “The freedom of association, or the freedom of expression, for example, have no watchdog.”

According to the ENNHRI the law is the first step to establishing an NHRI in Belgium in full compliance with the Paris Principles. ENNHRI further said:

“Through its mandate to promote and protect human rights, the new institution will be able to further create a holistic approach to human rights in Belgium, and to fill gaps in the current promotion and protection framework.”

However, human rights organisations expressed dissatisfaction that the mandate of the new Belgian institution has been limited to the federal level, and therefore limited to federal areas of competence, that will not fully fill the gap of the current human rights architecture in Belgium.

ENNHRI emphasised that the new National Human Rights Institution will have the task to “flesh out its role within a rather complex institutional framework.”

Amnesty International, although noting the important role the new NHRI can play in ensuring the right to freedom of expression, expressed concern over “the limitation of the mandate of the new institution to federal areas of competence, which can prevent the future institution to address some important issues [..].” 

Belgium is a federal state, composed of three Communities and three Regions. 

Reports reveal deteriorating freedom of expression 

According to the human rights CSO, Ligue des Droits Humains, traditional media are going through a difficult period, including in Belgium. In their analysis published in May 2019, looking at the state of media around Europe, the League found that although the situation in Belgium seems better that in other European countries, concerns still remain of cases of pressure on and legal action against journalists and de-legitimisation of the press by political actors and a part of the public opinion.

Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2019 World Press Freedom Index, published on 18th April 2019, also indicated a negative picture for media freedom in Belgium. Belgium fell two places in the RSF’s 2019 ranking, from the 7th to the 9th place, compared to last year. RSF noted that "press freedom and the situation of journalists are worsening in Belgium" and emphasised journalists' concerns of censorship and lack of funding for media. Among the negative developments, RSF also highlighted the government directive under which a judge can vet a media outlet’s work before publication, in violation of the Constitution.

In a separate development, the use of some caricatures at a carnival has sparked criticism for being racist and anti-Semitic.

In early March 2019, the Aalst Carnival, a carnival in a small city northwest of Brussels, drew criticism due to the use of caricatures that many found offensive as a float in the parade carried two giant figures of Orthodox Jews, sitting on bags of money. Another group paraded dressed as Ku Klux Klan members.

According to the Brussels Times, “this is not the first time the organisers of the carnival have sparked complaints of racism, bad taste or historical ignorance. In 2013 another group showed a float in the form of a Nazi railway wagon surrounded by people dressed as Nazi officers and Orthodox Jews.”

More than 19,000 people signed a petition on Change.org calling on UNESCO to cut its ties with the event. On 21st March 2019, UNESCO’s Bureau of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage decided to propose to the Committee to discuss the possible removal of the Aalst Carnival from the world heritage list. The Committee will meet in mid-December 2019.

Peaceful Assembly

In May 2019, as Belgium held its federal and regional elections as well as the European parliament elections, a number of protests took place.

On 26th May 2019, on the day of the European Parliament, federal and regional elections, a ‘yellow vest’ protest took place in Brussels. The yellow vest demonstration intended to denounce social injustice, mobilised hundreds to the streets. However, it led to clashes between police and protesters, according to media reports. Some protesters were reported of pelting buildings and smashing barricades. Police intervened to disperse demonstrators and hundreds were briefly arrested. Brussels police spokeswoman was quoted saying that around 350 people were briefly detained but were released later during the day.

On 28th May 2019, people took to the streets to protest as the extreme-right group “Vlaams Belang” won an unprecedented support by securing 18,5% of the votes in Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, during the latest national elections held on 26th May 2019. More than 4,000 people rallied peacefully in Brussels on 28th May 2019. Protesters gathered under the slogan of "No fascism in Belgium or in Europe!" to denounce the strengthening of the far-right. Also some 150 protesters took to the streets against the Vlaams Belang party in Ghent.

According to local media, the protest was organised by the Coalition Stand Up against Extreme Right and Fascism, supported by various organisations, including human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ, anti-racist and other organisations. On the event’s Facebook page, Stand Up says, “We affirm that the far right has no place in parliaments and governments, nor in our streets, and that our united front will mobilize, as long as necessary and on all the possible fronts, to prevent it from harming.”