Carnival branded anti-Semitic; police use excessive force against climate protesters

Background

Belgium’s governing coalition fell apart in December 2018 due to a dispute over the UN pact on migration. Elections, both regional and federal together with EU Parliament elections, were held on 26th May 2019 as scheduled. However, political parties have not succeeded in forming a new federal government. During the elections, the Flemish nationalist right NVA and extreme right party Vlaams Belang prevailed in Flanders. In Wallonia (the French speaking region), the majority voted for leftist parties - the socialist party PS and the green party Ecolo. As a result, the federal election resulted in a political stalemate. This is because the federal government must be formed from both sides of the language divide and it has been a challenge to agree on priorities for the government. This isn’t the first time that Belgium has struggled to form a federal government – it took 541 days during 2010 and 2011. However, the governments for the country’s regions were formed between June and Oct 2019.The Prime Minister’s office is currently occupied by a caretaker government.

Expression

Belgium carnival branded anti-Semitic

As previously reported on the Monitor, in March 2019 Aalst Carnival, a carnival in a small city northwest of Brussels, drew criticism for the use of caricatures for a float in the parade. The float, which many found offensive, carried two giant figures of Orthodox Jews, sitting on bags of money. Another group in the parade dressed as Ku Klux Klan members. This was not the first time the carnival has faced a backlash.

More than 22,000 people signed a petition on Change.org in protest at the carnival and called on UNESCO to cut its ties with the event. UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage discussed the issue in December 2019 and has since removed the carnival from its heritage list. The Committee said in a statement that it stood by "its founding principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect among peoples and condemns all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia."

Court rules in favour of exhibitors

In a separate development, in October 2019, Belgian police sued three associations over an exhibition titled “DON’T SHOOT” which tackled protests against police repression. Four Brussels police officers, who were pictured in photographs at the exhibition, claimed that this violated their right to privacy. The exhibition, which was organised in 2018 by the Ligue des Droits Humains (LDH- Belgian League of Human Rights) together with two other organisations, aimed at highlighting police repression against migrants and citizens that show solidarity. The exhibition also hoped to launch a debate on this serious issue.

According toa LDH report, “the Brussels police district and four of its officers who recognised themselves in some photographs displayed during the exhibition did not appreciate this initiative, which they claim constitutes a violation of their right to privacy (even though the photographs show them performing their official duties in a public space)”. Under the guise of the right to control their image, they brought a court case against the three associations, claiming 20,000 euros in damages and asked the court to impose a daily penalty of 5,000 euros if the pictures remained on display.

This lawsuit blatantly conflicts with the right to freedom of expression and the right to public information and contradicts the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).The Brussels Court of First Instance ruled in favor of the organisers and decided that there was no justification for prohibiting the exhibition of photographs showing police officers working. LDH believes that by making this decision the “Court confirmed the right to publish un-blurred images of police officers performing their official duties in public spaces”. In addition, it signifies “a big victory for the freedom of information of all journalists and citizens in Belgium”. However, the court ordered the organisers to compensate two of the four police officers due to the descriptions of the photographs, which tarnished their reputations. The organisers are considering an appeal against this part of the decision as they claim that they did not write the descriptions.

Peaceful Assembly

Climate protestors detained

On 12th October 2019 police arrested 435 (XR) protesters in Brussels who gathered for a national sit-in under the name ‘Royal Rebellion at Place Royal’. Police reportedly used water cannon, batons and pepper spray to disperse the protesters, followed by arrests.

According to the Mayor of Brussels:

  • 317 people were the subjected to administrative arrest,
  • 118 people were sent to the central police station for an identity check,
  • 130 others were arrested and identified on the spot

The detained protesters were released later that day. An investigation was opened when photos and videos of the police action appeared, including one of a police officer using pepper spray on a handcuffed protester who lay on the ground (see pics here).

On 21st October 2019, a protest against police brutality, in response to the previous protest, was organised by Youth for Climate and the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), and supported by other associations in Brussels named ‘United Against Police Violence’. The protest was authorised by local authorities.

No incidents were reported. Meanwhile the mayor of Brussels announced that four disciplinary investigations were opened against police officers with regard to the protest on 12th October 2019.

On 8th December 2019 thousands of people formed a human chain in Brussels around the Belgian federal parliament and the Royal Palace, calling for immediate actions against climate change. The march was organised by Climate Change Belgium.