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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights examines fourth report of Belgium

7 November 2013

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today considered the fourth periodic report of Belgium on how the country implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Introducing the report, Bertrand De Crombrugghe, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that Belgium had always supported international instruments and implemented the Covenant in conjunction with other human rights treaties. Presenting the report, François Vandamme, General Advisor, Federal Office for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue, International Affairs Division, said that the establishment of a federal Human Rights Institution was underway. The principle of non-discrimination was broadly guaranteed in Belgium by various bodies, including courts, and areas prone to discriminatory practices had received close attention in recent years. Measures were taken to combat trafficking in persons, to protect the rights of the child, to fight against domestic violence, and to boost employment.

The Committee commended Belgium on the quality of its report and welcomed the ratification by Belgium of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Committee Members raised issues concerning youth unemployment, discrepancies in unemployment rates and pay between Wallonia and Flanders, domestic violence, and the situation of persons with disabilities. Questions were also asked about parental leave and discrimination against pregnant women, the long-term sustainability of Belgium’s social security system, measures taken to provide social housing and assist homeless persons, and the integration of non-European Union migrants in Belgian society.

In concluding remarks, Bertrand De Crombrugghe, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, thanked the Committee for its hard work and said it had been a privilege to be reviewed by a group of Experts in the field and to receive constructive feedback.

François Vandamme, General Advisor, Federal Office for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue, International Affairs Division, took note of the need for disaggregated data and detailed statistics on unemployment and thanked the Committee for taking into consideration Belgium’s unusual institutional set-up.

Alvaro Tirado Mejia, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Belgium, thanked the delegation for its willingness to answer all questions and praised the quality and detail of the delegation’s responses and said that despite minor shortcomings, Belgium had made significant and positive progress.

Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Chairperson, thanked the Belgian delegation for a frank, exhaustive dialogue, which had contributed to a constructive meeting based on excellent cooperation.

The delegation of Belgium included representatives of the Federal Office for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue, the Federal Ministry of Interior, the Federal Ministry of Justice, the Federal Ministry for Social Integration, the Flemish Education Department, the Brussels Public Service Department, the Federal Public Service for Social Security, and the Permanent Mission of Belgium in Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 10 a.m. on Friday, 8 November, when it will consider the second period report of Bosnia and Herzegovina (E/C.12/BIH/2).

Report

The fourth periodic report of Belgium can be read here: E/C.12/BEL/4.

Presentation of the Report

BERTRAND DE CROMBRUGGHE, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, introduced the report by saying that Belgium had always supported international instruments and implemented the Covenant in conjunction with other human rights treaties. Belgium remained constantly committed to guaranteeing the economic, social and cultural rights of its population, even during the most difficult of times.

FRANÇOIS VANDAMME, General Advisor, Federal Office for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue, International Affairs Division, presented the report, said that in November 2012 an international seminar had been organized on Belgium’s obligations under international instruments and on its reporting to treaty bodies. The establishment of a federal Human Rights Institution was underway, but the process needed time to be completed because it required merging with several local institutions. The principle of non-discrimination was broadly guaranteed in Belgium by various bodies, including courts. Belgian legislation was modern and up-to-date and had recently been reviewed. Areas prone to discriminatory practices had received close consideration in recent years, mainly as a result of the implementation of the European Social Charter and of various international instruments. The issue of the wage gap between men and women was also receiving close attention and new bills were being proposed to tackle the problem of domestic violence.

Unemployment levels remained high in Belgium; it was an international and European problem and was mainly due to structural factors. To tackle the issue, particularly that of youth unemployment, a labour market focus group had been set up to provide comprehensive assistance to persons having difficulty finding employment, and cross-sector restructuring was taking place. Measures were also being taken to reduce the school drop-out rate, which was a major concern not only for Belgium but for all European countries, and a primary main reason for the high youth unemployment rate.

The protection of children’s rights was a constant concern for Belgium and the issue of corporal punishment was being reviewed by the European Committee on Social Rights. Combating trafficking in persons, especially trafficking in children, remained a priority for Belgian authorities. Social Security authorities did all they could to ensure the vulnerable continued to receive adequate assistance and protection. The International Social Security Association was one of several international bodies to have recognized the high quality of the services provided by the Belgian social security system.

Foreign workers legally residing in the country fully enjoyed all their rights without discrimination on the basis of their origin, but Belgium discouraged illegal immigration. The Government tried to reach a quick decision on applications for asylum-seeker status, but whenever someone was refused asylum or the opportunity to take up residence in Belgium they always had the opportunity to appeal against their expulsion. Foreigners residing in Belgium were strongly encouraged to avail of all opportunities available to them to integrate fully in society. In local communities measures were taken to encourage the integration of vulnerable groups in the ordinary education system without placing an extra cost burden upon families.

Questions by Experts

ALVARO TIRADO MEJIA, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Belgium, commended Belgium on the composition of its high-level and specialized delegation and said that Belgium’s report was well-prepared. It was positive that Belgium was close to ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Covenant and several other international instruments, such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which would greatly benefit Belgium’s promotion and protection of human rights. The Committee noted that some of the recommendations previously made to Belgium had not yet been implemented, such as the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission in line with the Paris Principles.

Concerning the enforcement of the Covenant in domestic courts, Mr. Tirado Mejia asked whether there had been any cases where the Covenant had been applied or invoked. The significant gap in salaries and representation of men and women at work persisted despite recommendations made by the Committee on that matter. The issue of respect for the right to strike in Belgium was another matter which needed to be dealt with. Moreover, domestic violence had not yet been criminalized and violence against women appeared to be on the rise in Belgium. The corporal punishment of children within families and in school had no been addressed yet and the “pedagogical slap” was still seen as acceptable practice.

An Expert asked whether Belgium had reached the goal of giving 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product to developing countries as international aid and wanted to know whether a human rights impact assessment system was in place to check whether aid given within the framework of international cooperation had a negative impact. She also asked whether Belgium was aware of its extraterritorial obligations to monitor the activities of its companies in developing countries.

It was encouraging to see that the principle of non-discrimination was upheld by Belgium and also applied to persons with disabilities. However, the majority of persons with disabilities were institutionalized, instead of living with their families or in a community setting, therefore effective measures were needed to de-institutionalize persons with disabilities. Did Belgium have any plans to take such measures in the near future in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an Expert asked. The Committee had received information that persons with disabilities worked in special workshops, where sometimes exploitation occurred. Were there any plans to eliminate that practice which was not part of an integration policy and separated persons with disabilities from the rest of the population?

A Committee Member asked if there were shelters or counselling centres where women and girls with disabilities could receive help and adequate specialized attention. How were the needs of that population group met? What was Belgium doing to tackle violence against girls and women with disabilities?

Gender budgeting was a major tool to bring gender mainstreaming to fruition, an Expert said, asking if there had been an assessment of how gender budgeting had improved policies for women? Why were there still complaints about discrimination against pregnant women? Was it due to a lack of understanding on the part of employers?

An Expert said that a broad and general anti-discrimination legislative framework was needed at federal level, within which the existing local legislation would continue to apply. It was positive that health and safety matters at work were taken seriously, he added, asking if there were any specific institutions which were in charge of supervising matters of health and safety at work?

Part-time work had apparently increased the gender pay gap between men and women: what was being done to tackle that problem? The service voucher system which had been put in place to combat informal employment was a commendable initiative, but figures showed that hardly any men were covered by the voucher scheme. Why the vast majority of persons receiving vouchers were women?

An Expert praised Belgium’s social security system, which, he said, was generous and comprehensive. However, bearing in mind that the global economic crisis had taken its toll on social security and that Belgium had one of the oldest populations in Europe, what were the future prospects of the Belgian security system? What was Belgium doing to ensure that it would be able to sustain its social security system in the years to come?

An Expert noted that there was a huge discrepancy between the Walloon and Flemish communities in terms of unemployment levels, particularly among young persons. Did the federal Government have specific programmes in place to tackle the issue, or was it merely a passive observer of what was going on in the country?

An Expert asked what measures had been taken to address the underlying causes of homelessness and what was done to tackle poverty. Apart from the rent subsidy which had been introduced by Belgium, what was done to address the problem of a large number of persons on the waiting list for social housing? Why was there an over-representation of foreign nationals in terms of recipients and applicants for social housing, particularly urban centres?

Response by Delegation

Responding to the questions, the delegation began by saying Belgium had not achieved its objective of contributing 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product to international aid by 2010, because of the 2008 global economic crisis. However, in 2011 0.53 per cent of Belgium’s gross domestic product was spent on international aid, which was still seen as satisfactory and was one of the best scores achieved by developed countries during the crisis.

Concerning the impact of international cooperation on human rights, Belgium said that when bilateral aid was being considered general targets were set and agreed with the recipient country concerned. The targets set always took into account the partner country’s development plan, and specific projects were chosen in collaboration with the partner country. The law required Belgium to comply fully with all its obligations pursuant to its international human rights commitments and the same was expected of partner countries. Before implementation, projects were carefully examined and evaluated on the basis of those obligations. In fact, the law on international cooperation required Belgium to take into account the capabilities of the partner country to comply with international obligations. There were currently 15 such partnerships and currently there were no plans to expand that number. A preliminary choice was made by Belgium with respect to the areas covered. Belgium’s criteria for choosing international partners were not political.

Concerning the application of the Covenant in law, a delegate said it had been applied in court cases but it was up to the judge to decide whether direct invocation of the Covenant was necessary or not. The Covenant was taken into account but was not often mentioned by barristers in court. Rather, European Union legislation was mentioned in greater detail and judges tended to decide on the basis of the European Union set of instruments. The Covenant was mentioned in an accessory fashion but that did not mean that its provisions were not applied.

Belgium had made a commitment a long time ago to set up a National Human Rights Institution. In December 2011, a Government agreement was reached to set up an inter-federal body, and, following that agreement, a number of working meetings between the Walloon and Flemish sides had taken place. Further, a working group had been set up to draft what would serve as the basis for an inter-federal institution, which would include all existing bodies. Meanwhile, the mandate of existing bodies needed to be revised, which was currently underway. There was no definite date by which the National Human Rights Institution would come into force, but it was hoped that it would be up and running by the time Belgium came before the Committee to discuss its next periodic report.

The delegation said that there had been an undeniable change in Belgium’s approach to dealing with persons with disabilities. Belgian authorities were required to mainstream the new approach, which was also promoted by the European Social Charter. Several initiatives were taken in that regard, both in the Flemish and the Walloon regions. For example, on the Flemish side there was a plan to make home care more easily accessible to persons with disabilities, giving them greater autonomy and flexibility on organizing their health care needs. In Wallonia, specific measures were taken to protect women with disabilities. The federal budget allocated to programmes for persons with disabilities had increased significantly.

Everyone’s right to work was protected and sheltered workshops for persons with disabilities were not places of exploitation. Those workshops had been pre-approved by specialists and every effort was made to create a good atmosphere at work. Meanwhile, further measures were taken to facilitate the integration of employed persons with disabilities in the world of employment.

Belgium was currently gathering information for its report to be submitted to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014. There was no single definition of disabilities in Belgium, so it was difficult to provide statistical data at this stage. Information was still being gathered and statistical data would become available in the near future.

Belgium took seriously its obligations under the Covenant but also had obligations under many other international instruments which it had ratified and also under the European Social Charter. Every effort was made to coordinate effectively action under all those instruments and Belgium strove to meet all its obligations. Remaining challenges were posed by measures which were very costly and, therefore, their immediate implementation was difficult. Moreover, Belgium had gone through a profound constitutional negotiation during the past three years and was still in the process of reorganizing its competences and know-how transfer at federal level, which posed additional challenges when it came to meeting its international obligations.

Concerning direct complaints about human rights received by federal bodies, the delegation said that those were responded to directly. Belgium’s commitment was not weaker because of federal structure but the country had to respect the legislative framework within which human rights commitments were met.

Measures were being taken to close the gender pay gap and employment conditions gap between men and women. The budget gap was being dealt with primarily at federal level but also in local communities, and at federal level the budget was always decided based on the equal participation of men and women.

Hate crime was criminalized in domestic law and the use of a discriminatory motive in certain criminal offences was treated as “aggravated circumstances”. In cases where persons were subjected to acts of violence because they had a disability, sentences for perpetrators were twice as severe. Several such cases had been taken before Belgian courts, where discrimination was strongly condemned and punished.

Concerning the protection of the rights of pregnant women in employment, the delegation said that Belgium had taken into account a recent European Union directive about the length of maternity leave and the compensation paid to pregnant women. Specific social security programmes ensured that the rights of pregnant women in the workplace were fully respected by employers, and progress continued to be made in that respect.

Austerity measures did not affect Belgium’s political will to continue to protect vulnerable groups. In fact, the benefit paid to persons with disabilities and the lowest pensions had recently been increased, to ensure that those in need enjoyed the highest possible social benefits.

Efforts were made to sustain the country’s social security system, which covered a large number of persons. Ageing undoubtedly had an impact on social security provisions. To deal with that issue, a reform of the social security system was underway, beginning with a review of retirement age, including early retirement, which was deemed to be too low.

The delegation said that historical factors were in part behind the discrepancies in youth unemployment rates and average pay between Wallonia and Flanders. In the Brussels region, measures were taken to reduce the impact of unemployment on persons below the age of 25 years old and to get young persons back into the job market. Wallonia was aware of its high regional unemployment rate and had set up training programmes in teaching, agriculture and other areas to help young unemployed persons find work. The Flemish Government, too, had implemented a programme to stimulate job creation and was running employment workshops for young persons.

The delegation said that many non-European Union families arriving in Belgium had been living in extreme poverty and the parents had few employment skills and little work experience. Integration of those immigrants in society remained a major challenge, so Belgium worked to improve its integration mechanisms and help immigrants enter the job market.

Concerning the issue of strikes, the delegation said that a mediation service was available to companies in order to help avoid strikes wherever possible. Strikes were allowed as long as they were peaceful and fully respected the right to freedom of expression. In certain cases, company directors had gone before the courts to ask judges that a quick procedure be followed to put an end to strikes and the judges had intervened. That type of intervention was not well received by trade unions and workers, who claimed that their rights had been violated.

There were many different offences related to domestic violence, so the general approach was to look at the specific circumstances of each incident and apply aggravating circumstances wherever possible. All the provisions of the Penal Code applied in incidents of domestic violence. The domestic violence code made it possible to register incidents of domestic violence and keep a record of offenders. Accommodation and assistance were provided to domestic violence victims, including children. Statistics showed that in 2012 there had been a decrease in reported cases (49,000 cases, compared to 53,000 cases reported in 2011). Cases which had not been followed up on could be reopened, but the vast majority of those had been closed because the complaint or charges had been dropped or the case was impossible to follow up on for technical reasons.

Concerning healthcare for undocumented migrants, the delegation said that migrants in an irregular situation only had the right to urgent medical care. Urgent medical care did not just cover accidents, but every medical problem which may pose a risk to the person concerned or those around them.

In response to the questions about trafficking in persons, the delegation said that a new law contained an explicit definition of trafficking in persons and several new measures were taken to combat that phenomenon. The focus of efforts undertaken in that regard was on implementing a stricter investigation policy, but there were also awareness-raising campaigns and steps were taken to provide better care for victims. Statistics showed that the number of trafficking incidents had not increased in 2012. In 2011, around 67 sentences had been handed down for trafficking offences. Sentences were very strict and usually involved prison terms of between three to five years.

The aim of action taken in relation to trafficking incidents was two-fold: to protect trafficking victims and to punish those found to be responsible. Cooperation with the victim was important, but in cases where vulnerable individuals were involved the victim may not testify as a witness. The European Union directive on trafficking was taken into consideration.

In September 2012, Belgium had put in place a two-year poverty reduction plan, the aim of which was to help those trying to come out of poverty and also prevent people from falling into poverty. There had been an increase in social benefits for those living in poverty and financial assistance with energy bill costs was available to low-income families. A separate plan was in place to fight against child poverty, which was treated as a cross-cutting issue. Financial, social and medical aid was offered to children living in poverty. A network of civil servants had been put in place to identify areas where more work was needed and to ensure that all relevant information gathered was shared with other departments. The social aid system was monitored and regularly reviewed.

Concerning homeless persons, the delegation said that the problem of homelessness had many different facets and was therefore treated as a cross-cutting issue. Data collection, support and social innovation were the Government’s top priorities in dealing with the issue. Local authorities were currently improving facilities in existing winter shelters and were also opening several new emergency shelters. Steps were also taken to provide homeless persons with a stable reference address, because having an address was crucial to receiving social benefit.

In addition, measures were taken to house homeless and low-income persons. In Flanders, the regional housing policy was based on a 1997 law which guaranteed affordable and safe housing for all.

The Flemish region was seeking to increase the number of housing units available to 150,000 units. Low-income households were given the opportunity to rent or buy affordable property, provided they were willing to settle down in Flanders and learn Flemish. In cases where there was no housing available, a compensatory allowance (housing benefit) was paid to the person concerned or their rent was subsidized.

Concerning the Brussels region, there was a huge demand for housing, so efforts were directed towards increasing the number of available housing units. The Government was pursuing a new social housing construction programme to ensure that decent housing was available for every citizen. Other measures included paying a means-tested housing benefit to tenants to help them meet their rent obligations and working with estate agencies to identify and subsidize privately rented properties.

The number of male citizens taking parental leave was steadily increasing, so amendments were made to the law to allow for greater flexibility in taking maternity/parental leave. For example, the four-month full-time parental leave could be extended to eight months part-time. In 2011, 14,000 men had taken parental leave. A lump sum was paid to women on a low salary who went on maternity leave. The Government was aware that employers in general tended to be more favourable to a female employee asking for maternity leave than to a male employee applying for paternity leave.

Concerning electronic forms of child pornography, the delegation said that the possession and diffusion of child pornography was punishable by law. Blocking websites containing pornographic images of children was also provided for in the legislation. “Grooming” was dealt with under the category of “gross indecency” type of offences.

Fraudulent marriages conducted for the sole purpose of obtaining residency in Belgium or acquiring the Belgian/European Union citizenship were illegal. The validity of relevant documentation was carefully checked, either by the local authorities if the union took place in Belgium or by consular authorities if the wedding took place abroad. False marriages could either be refused before they took place or annulled if the sham was discovered afterwards.

The Government felt that it was important to help new migrants integrate in society. To that end, civic integration programmes were on offer and included language courses, personal guidance and assistance with job hunting. European Union citizens were exempt from the civic integration programmes, although they were welcome to participate in them, if they so wished.

Newcomers were taught the principal Belgian values, including equality between men and women, non-discrimination and respect for cultural diversity, either in their native language or in the contact language (Flemish or French). In the French-speaking community, subsidies were provided to newcomers who were in need of financial aid, while the French Commission support programme provided citizen-related information to immigrants. The problem of contract, forced and arranged marriages was closely monitored by the authorities and several awareness-raising activities had been organized in that regard.

Concluding remarks

BERTRAND DE CROMBRUGGHE, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, thanked the Committee for its hard work and said it had been a privilege to be reviewed by a group of Experts in the field and to receive constructive feedback. Belgium found the exercise worthwhile and remained committed to implementing the Covenant.

FRANÇOIS VANDAMME, General Advisor, Federal Office for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue, International Affairs Division, said that the delegation had taken note of the comments made by Committee Members about the need to gather disaggregated data and provide detailed statistics on unemployment across the country. Concerns expressed about the Covenant being invoked in courts, the full enjoyment of social and cultural rights by everyone irrespective of the economic climate, and Belgium’s extraterritorial obligations had also been noted. The delegation was pleased that the Committee had taken into consideration Belgium’s unusual institutional set-up, which had made dialogue with the Experts much easier.

ALVARO TIRADO MEJIA, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Belgium, thanked the delegation for its willingness to answer all questions and praised the quality and detail of its responses, which had given the Committee a better understanding of the situation in the country. Institutionally Belgium was a complex case, which had been taken into account by the Committee. Despite minor shortcomings, Belgium had made significant progress and there were many positive things about its report.

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Chairperson, thanked the Belgian delegation for a frank, exhaustive dialogue, which had contributed to a constructive meeting based on excellent cooperation. Additional responses could be submitted in writing within the next 48 hours. The Committee would adopt its concluding observations in its public meeting of 29 November.

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For use of the information media; not an official record