7 February 2014
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today completed its consideration of the combined sixteenth to nineteenth periodic report of Belgium on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Presenting the report, Veronique LeFrancq, Counsellor for Equal Opportunities in the Ministry of the Interior and Equal Opportunities, said that in recent years, Belgium had ratified a number of United Nations and Council of Europe human rights texts, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. New legislation included a coherent definition of discrimination and an increase in the minimum and maximum levels of penalties for acts of racial hatred. Campaigns against anti-Semitic behaviour were in place and a new museum to commemorate victims of the Holocaust had been opened. Although Belgium had not yet established a national human rights institution a new Interfederal Centre For Equality And Fighting Racism would become operational within several weeks.
During the discussion, Committee Experts expressed appreciation for the excellent work done by the Centre for Equal Opportunity and Opposition to Racism, but regretted its status B under the Paris Principles. They praised Belgium for achievements in a number of areas and for its continuous support to the Committee, but noted with concern that Belgium had so far failed to adopt a national action plan against racism. Questions were also raised on the issues of the treatment of the Roma and Travellers, Islamophobia, linguistic diversity and possible discrimination, and special measures taken in favour of underprivileged groups.
In concluding remarks, Carlos Vazquez, Country Rapporteur for Belgium, said that a number of positive aspects had been noted, along with some areas of concern. He stressed the importance of training, education and sensitization, which could help change the underlying attitudes towards migrants from certain countries.
Ms. Haven concluded by saying that the dialogue had been positive and useful. Belgium attached great importance to issues discussed. Education was a fundamentally important issue, as the generations being educated now would determine the future.
The delegation of Belgium included representatives of the Appellate Court of Liege and the College of Prosecutors, Directorate of Integration and Equal Opportunities of Wallonia, Flemish Government’s Representation to the multilateral organizations in Geneva, Federal Police, Flemish Department of Foreign Affairs, Directorate of Foreign Affairs, Interior Administration of the Flemish Government, Liaison for the French Community in Belgium, General Directorate of the Office for Foreigners, Directorate of Foreign Relations of Brussels, and the Permanent Mission of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 10 a.m. on Monday, 10 February, when it will hold an informal meeting with non-governmental organizations of Switzerland.
The combined sixteenth to nineteenth periodic report of Belgium can be read here (CERD/C/BEL/16-19).
Presentation of the Report
DANIELE HAVEN, Minister Counsellor and Deputy Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said since Belgium’s last presentation in February 2008 it continued to support the implementation of international human rights treaties and cooperate with a wide range of treaty bodies. Combatting all forms of racism and racial discrimination remained among the priorities of Belgian public policy. The Belgian delegation was composed of a large number of representatives of both federal and community bodies. Competencies to fight racial discrimination were shared between the federal level, communities and the regions. Ms. Haven noted that Belgium was planning to jointly submit, with Slovenia, a biannual resolution on the Convention to the sixty-ninth session of the General Assembly in September 2014.
VERONIQUE LEFRANCQ, Counsellor for Equal Opportunities in the Ministry of the Interior and Equal Opportunities, said that in 2010, during its presidency of the European Union and when Belgium had hosted the Equality Summit, the Belgian authorities had been particularly active on human rights issues. In recent years, Belgium had ratified a number of United Nations and Council of Europe documents, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Legislation adopted in 2007 provided a coherent definition of discrimination regardless of the ground. New legislation adopted in 2013 allowed an increase in the minimum and maximum levels of penalties which could be imposed, if there were aggravating circumstances, such as racial hatred. A committee of experts was being set up to look into possible amendments of anti-discrimination legislation.
Among the most recent measures was the Joint Circular 13/2013, which had replaced two previous circulars of 2006, and was intended to ensure clear policies across the board and to report and monitor what was happening in a more efficient manner. Particular attention would also be paid to cyber-crime. The Circular also established focal point policemen in each police station, whose task was to ensure the appropriate level of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter among their peers. Whenever there were allegations of racial discrimination on the part of the police, there would need to be an investigation and a report. The need for training of the judiciary was particularly emphasized, and in each court at least one magistrate had to be trained on the subject discrimination. Such training took place biennially. Regarding jurisprudence on racism and xenophobia, Article 20 of the anti-racism law was more generic, whereas articles 21 and 22 referred to more specific offences, Ms. LeFrancq explained. There had been recent examples of application of each of those articles by courts to penalize the offenders. A new law was adopted in 2013 that expanded the definition of trafficking to include all forms of sexual exploitation, and particular attention was being paid to helping minors.
Anti-Semitism was on the rise across Europe, including in Belgium. In response, the Government had organized campaigns to educate people against that plague. A special intra-governmental unit had been established with the view of reinforcing security measures around sensitive places and encouraging victims of anti-Semitic acts to submit complaints. Belgium had presided the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance from 2012 to 2013, and a museum to commemorate the Holocaust victims from Belgium was opened in 2012. The National Strategy for the Integration of Roma paid particular attention was being given to “horizontal” objectives, such as the participation of Roma in society, with the emphasis on the education of police and judicial functionaries, and data management. With regard to asylum seekers, since 1 January 2014 Belgium applied all provisions of the Dublin III regulations. In 2013, close to 15,000 persons had requested asylum. Efforts were being made to keep detention as short as possible. Only 2.6 per cent of all asylum seekers as identified by the “Eurodac system” had been detained throughout the entire asylum procedure.
There had been a drop of almost 20 per cent in cases of racism and xenophobia in Belgium, but it was clear that there had also been unreported cases. Every year, most cases had been raised in Brussels, and in more than 80 per cent of cases there had been shelved without follow-up, mostly for technical reasons. Between 2007 and 2012, there were 342 crimes of racial hatred. Concerning racist acts committed by the police forces, figures from the monitoring body, Committee P, showed an average of 90 complaints per year, a small proportion of which were judicially investigated. Judicial organs did not always communicate to the Committee P all judicial decisions regarding police officers. Significant training had taken place for police forces with the view of sensitizing them on human rights, exclusion, xenophobia and the importance of thinking independently.
Several measures had been taken in the field of education, including efforts to help students with learning difficulties, to ensure fair school admissions policies, and to reduce drop-out rates. Significant progress had been achieved in the employment sector, with labour conventions prescribing equal treatment in recruitment processes. Furthermore, it was not forbidden to wear religious symbols at work. The Government also sought to widen access to healthcare for the most underprivileged persons, by use of community centres and free medical care. Belgium had not yet established a national human rights institution, largely due to the institutional complexity of the country, although a new Interfederal Centre For Equality And Fighting Racism would become operational within several weeks. Belgium was committed to demands of Durban I and Durban II in the framework of its National Plan Of Action Against Racism.
Questions by Experts
CARLOS VAZQUEZ, Country Rapporteur for Belgium, stated that the Centre for Equal Opportunity and Opposition to Racism had done excellent work, but had only B status and its remit was limited, including lack of authority over language discrimination. The absence of a national human rights institution with A status was an issue that had to raised. He expressed hope that the Committee would be able to hear from a national human rights institution the next time Belgium presented its report. It seemed that the Centre’s authorities over migration and discrimination against non-nationals had been given to the newly-formed Federal Centre for the Analysis of Migration Flows, which was a cause for concern. The Board of the Directors of the new centre would be appointed by the Government, which was not in compliance with the Paris Principles.
The Country Rapporteur noted that Belgium had so far failed to adopt a national action plan of action against racism, as contemplated by the Durban Plan of Action, and asked what was hindering the adoption of such a plan.
It was noted that the problem of structural discrimination existed in Belgium, which one non-governmental organization called “ethno-stratification”, especially in the field of employment. Religious discrimination in Belgium seemed to be closely linked to ethnic or national origin discrimination. Some public and private employers had prohibited the wearing of the headscarf in jobs involving interaction with the public.
Prohibition of wearing headscarves was also a concern in the area of education, and was more troubling in the Flemish parts as it effectively prevented girls of certain religions from obtaining any education at all. Mr. Vazquez asked for the State party’s thoughts regarding the compatibility of those laws with its obligation to prevent racial discrimination. He also inquired about the purported purpose of the law on the prohibition of wearing the burka in public. Those problems seemed to be symptomatic of a deeper problem of Islamophobia. Some studies concluded that discrimination against ethnic minorities in Belgium was the country’s most significant human rights problem.
Anti-Semitism also remained a significant problem, and in 2012, 77 per cent of Belgian Jews said they considered it to be very serious problem. What were the State party’s ideas for combatting it?
Concerning police, the Committee had previously recommended additional and more effective training regarding interaction with minorities and more effective enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Many police reportedly retained stereotypical attitudes towards Muslim. Excess force was a particular problem in connection with the expulsion or deportation of aliens – could the State party share findings of its internal investigation from 2012?
There was information that asylum seekers were routinely and systematically detained at the border, which was a concern in light of international principles. The European Court of Human Rights had repeatedly concluded that Belgium had violated applicants’ rights to have access to an effective remedy. Non-nationals from outside Europe were ineligible for a public sector job, which was a concern in itself.
Challenges faced by the Roma community were an issue for all European countries, which had to be dealt with comprehensively in both countries of origin and destination. Problems related to Travellers and Roma included shortfalls in the areas of education, employment, health and housing. Belgian policies towards Travellers had reportedly violated several provisions of the European Social Charter, including the lack of sites for Travellers and eviction of the families, and the failure to acknowledge caravans as dwellings. There was a lack of coordinated overall policy on housing, which was a concern in the view of the Committee. Were there any specific plans to promote the integration of Roma in the German-speaking part of the country?
On other subjects Experts asked why did Belgium not accede to Article 8 of the Convention, which dealt with financing of the Committee? Belgium’s reservation over article 4 was raised again, and concern was expressed.
On trafficking in persons, the only people who seemed to be protected were women who agreed to cooperate with police and judicial authorities, which was a shame, if true.
Could the delegation share further information on possible links between trafficking and ethnic origin?
An Expert asked what the term “claimed race” meant and whether the State party had a definition of what race was. Were anti-discrimination and anti-racism cumulative or exclusive notions? What was their interrelationship? What did “more neutral acquiring of nationality”, mentioned in Belgium’s legislation, mean and what was its current status?
An Expert raised the issue of difficulties faced by members of Belgium’s various linguistic communities in getting education in their mother tongue. Was any education provided in minority languages, such as Arabic, Turkish or Berber?
Another Expert highlighted the issue of constructing of a museum dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. He said that it was an opportunity to ask Belgium about actions taken on the occasion of the Decade of the People of African Descent. Could the museum be expanded to mark the suffering of others, including people of African descent?
The lack of prohibition of groups promoting racism was raised and explanation requested. Given that it was prohibited to deny the Holocaust, was it prohibited to deny genocides, such as the one in Srebrenica?
An Expert stated that there might be a problem with the definition of injunction procedures when dealing with the victims of racial discrimination. The judge had to analyse affidavits and decide whether there was prima facie justification to grant an injunction. Before going to the trial, an alleged victim could receive a much smaller amount of fixed compensation that would be the case after the trial. A particular intent to commit a racist offence had to be proven in order to convict somebody – what did that mean? The Expert commented that there should be provisions for organizations promoting racist speech to be disbanded through a judicial process.
Were Walloons and Flemish considered to be separate nationalities, or were they rather seen as linguistic/cultural groups? Were Roma and Travelers both explicitly included in the national strategy, and what were the defined targets? Were representatives of the Sharia4Belgium organization, who had been sentenced to two years in prison, currently in prison? How many people in Belgium were still stateless and what was being done to tackle that issue, affecting fundamental human rights of such persons?
An Expert suggested that there should be a national conference in Belgium which should come up with a nation-wide plan of action, in line with the recommendations of the Durban Conference. Another Expert asked for the delegation’s view on possibilities of Belgium ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, which would make it the first European Union country to do so. How was the State party planning to continue to engage civil society?
Response by the Delegation
In response to the questions on the establishment of a national human rights institution, the delegation said that a working group had been established to that end. There a draft agreement to create such an institution. The Centre for Equal Opportunities was currently interfederalized; the chief human rights institution should follow the same suit.
Since the submission of the report in 2012, legislation had been modified with the view of streamlining the nationality system, and reinforcing the conditions needed for acquiring a nationality. Knowing one of the three national languages and participation in the local host community were among the preconditions, all in order to ensure a harmonious society. People who had been in Belgium for some time would have a path to nationality.
A draft law on statelessness had been submitted to the Council of Ministers. There were no precise figures on the numbers of stateless people in the country. After two years in the country, such people could request nationality.
With regard to the law on burqas, a delegate said it was not intended to discriminate against women. The law had been confirmed by the Constitutional Court, which had affirmed the three aims of the law: wearing clothes to cover one’s face presented a security threat, undermined the possibility of living together, and degraded the dignity of women. The Belgian law did not ban the wearing of head covers which did not cover the full face. Belgium had opted for the lightest criminal options, or administrative sanctions, in that regard.
A representative of Flanders clarified that the region had not introduced a general ban on wearing a headscarf in Flemish schools. Communities had a say in the decision-making process, along with the Ministry of Education. There had been several campaigns to raise awareness among private employers on anti-discriminatory measures.
In the French-speaking region, each school had the right to decide on whether to ban wearing of religious symbols. A number of Roma children in Wallonia were able to achieve basic education in their language.
Regarding Islamophobia, the delegation admitted that Belgium had faced some problems connected with wearing of the veil. The neutrality requirement when it came to visible wearing of religious symbols was applicable in the country, but defining exact specifics of it was still work in progress. A body called Muslim Action Belgium had published a white paper which provided a number of facts regarding Islamophobia. The Sharia4Belgium representative had been convicted and was currently in prison in Belgium serving his sentence; he had also been charged with membership in a terrorist organization.
Belgian legislation referred only to the denial of the Holocaust and crimes of the Nazi Party, but a draft law was being under review, which would cover genocides such as the one in Srebrenica. Several civil verdict had been issued on Holocaust denial over the previous years.
Primary countries of origin for trafficking victims included Bulgaria, Romania, China and Mongolia. Regarding trafficking in minors, special trainings were organized for those working with children in migrant centres, which was a sign of recognition of the problem.
Belgium had accepted the competency of all committees to receive individual complaints, and there had been only a few such complaints against Belgium over the previous years.
Regarding compensation for victims of racial discrimination, administrative process would take place first, and additional damages could be paid through criminal proceedings if the victims so wished.
Belgium was not keeping statistics on ethnic origin of persons in prisons. Persons who were in Belgium illegally could be arrested and kept in detention, or put under house arrest and/or electronically tagged, if there was fear that they would flee. On the issue of diversity in the judiciary, Belgium had admittedly not gone very far, especially with the inclusion of relatively recent migrants from North Africa.
There were three laws protecting persons against racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia. The prosecutor’s office had normally to prove intent behind the offender’s behaviour, and there was a burden of proof, a delegate said.
A federal plan against racism and xenophobia from 2004 contained ten major points, seven of which had been implemented, which had required a significant number of time. Evaluation was now underway, after which a new plan would be prepared for the next legislative period.
All ministries were involved in the issues of Roma and Travellers, and the last intraministerial meeting had taken place in December 2013. A specialized council on those issues had been in existence for about a year and was meeting three times a year. A specific plan of action had been communicated to it, with the focus on social inclusion.
Travellers and caravan sites were provided sufficient sites, heavily subsidized by the Flemish authorities. The Flemish caravan committee was meeting periodically to review the situation. Wallonia had supported an establishment of a mediation centre for Travellers, and was supporting the community by buying lands for caravan sites.
Belgium was divided into three mono-lingual communities – French, Flemish and German-speaking areas, and one bilingual area – that of Brussels. The obligation to use the official language in respective areas was in place, like in many European countries. Education was provided in the official languages of respective regions. Efforts were being made in both Flemish and French speaking parts to promote the so-called heritage languages, which would be offered in schools in the Flanders from September 2014. Flemish integration policy was horizontal and two-way process. Integration was a dynamic process, promoting interaction.
Specific work on training, language instruction and integration was being done in order to better prepare migrants for the workforce. The Brussels authorities had undertaken various actions to ensure that the composition of the city’s population was appropriately reflected in the public service. Disadvantaged people, including migrants, were also favoured when it came to granting social housing. Mobile homes and caravans were recognized in Brussels as legitimate housing.
There was an independent body in place to monitor forced returns, and also served for an oversight of police forces. More than three quarters of expulsions in 2013 had been carried out on a voluntary basis. Entrants at the border who were detained were those who did not meet the conditions to enter the country, and not everyone among them would make an asylum request. Unaccompanied minors could not be held in detention centres; they would have their status checked first, and in 2013, 38 per cent of those claimed to be minors had eventually been admitted to Belgium.
Regarding the training of the police, the delegation explained that efforts were continuing to improve both the amount and quality of trainings in the areas of fundamental human rights, perceptions, attitudes, awareness raising and behaviours. Diversity trainings were dispensed by the Centre for Equal Opportunity and Opposition to Racism.
The delegation said that Belgium did not have reservations with regard to Article 4 of the Convention, but it had deposed an interpretative statement, and was fulfilling its obligations in that regard. Procedures were underway at various levels in the country to adopt the amendment to Article 8.
Follow-up Questions by the Experts
An Expert asked who would make requests to the courts to issue rulings on statelessness of persons. Who had to prove that a person was or was not stateless?
On integration, the Expert said that it did not necessarily apply to tradition, culture and language, which people had the right to retain, especially in the private sphere, or they could otherwise be assimilated.
Another Expert said that Belgium had expelled a number of French nationals for having abused the social welfare schemes, and wondered if one Member State of the European Union could expel citizens of another Member State. While anti-discriminatory measures in the State party were clearly laudable, expulsion of foreign citizens did raise concerns, he added.
Response by the Delegation
The delegation said that courts and tribunals granted, or refused to grant, the status of statelessness, and the burden of proof lay with the individual trying prove that he either held the nationality or that he had lost it without the possibility of regaining it.
The delegation further explained that Belgium was attached to the freedom of movement within the European Union, but there had, unfortunately, been cases of abuse of the country’s welfare schemes. The proven abuses were considered to be serious, which was why those involved had been expelled.
On who was considered a migrant in Belgium, the delegation stated that it was foreigners and people of foreign origin. Those who had become naturalized Belgian citizens were being provided assistance with integration.
Follow-up Questions by the Experts
An Expert commended the special measure in Flanders to have four per cent of positions in public service be filled with migrants.
Another Expert raised the issue of moral reparations, particularly in relation with the Decade of People of African Descent.
The Country Rapporteur asked if there were situations other than the burqa when people obscured their faces in Belgium. While one stated rationale of the policy was to protect the dignity of women, concerns over discrimination still remained.
Regarding detention at the border, it would be good to know how the Dublin III Regulation would be introduced in the Belgian law and implemented in practical terms, especially with regard to the risk of absconding.
He reiterated concern over taking migration issues from the Centre for Equal Opportunity and Opposition to Racism to another body, which was not intra-federal. Concern was expressed over the necessity to be economically integrated, which meant having a paying job, as a precondition for receiving nationality. Had some public social welfare centres in Antwerp and Gent refused to provide medical aid to HIV-positive migrants unless they agreed to leave the country?
Response by the Delegation
Regarding Article 4 of the Convention, the delegation reiterated that it was a matter of interpretative declaration and not of reservation. The delegation also clarified that economic integration was not a necessary prerequisite for receiving nationality.
The law of 2011 did not specifically target the burqa or full veil, but was instead against wearing of any clothing covering full face in public. The sanctions were not disproportionate as they included the most light criminal penalty – a financial fine – imposed for it. Admittedly, some women did remain at home because of the legislation.
The delegation explained that the Centre for Equal Opportunity and Opposition to Racism and a newly established agency – Federal Centre for the Analysis of Migration Flows, Protection of the Fundamental Rights of Foreigners, and the Fight against Human Trafficking – would be accommodated in the same building and would share expertise and institutional memory.
No decision had been taken on banning certain organizations, and the Belgian approach was to punish individual perpetrators, as seen in the case of Sharia4Belgium.
Concerning people of African descent, the delegation said that Belgium had colonized three African countries – Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. There was still a debate in the political world on the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and a number of commemorations would take place in 2014. The issue of promoting memory and addressing difficult historical subjects was now mature in Belgium and frequently discussed.
The delegation said that its very composition demonstrated the complexities of the system in Belgium. Belgium had to deal with the situation as it was, and the country was placing an emphasis on the cooperation between various departments and offices, which had resulted in the one unified report under consideration.
There were laws to prevent and punish hate speech in public discourse. There were ten points in the 2004 plan to fight racism and xenophobia, most of them had been successfully implemented. All commitments made before the Committee were those of Belgium and would not change regardless which Government was in power, a delegate added.
CARLOS MANUEL VAZQUEZ, Country Rapporteur for Belgium, said that a number of positive aspects had been noted, along with some areas of concern. He stressed the importance of training, education and sensitization, which could help change the underlying attitudes towards migrants from certain countries. Segregation in education in some communities was an issue to which particular attention should be paid, and young generations should be the focus of anti-racism education programs.
DANIELE HAVEN, Minister Counsellor and Deputy Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations in Geneva, said today’s dialogue had been lively, useful and positive. Belgium attached great importance to issues being discussed at the Committee. The report and the annexes had been prepared with utmost seriousness and coordination of various levels of government in Belgium. Education was a fundamentally important issue, as the generations being educated now would determine the future.
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