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In Dialogue with Belgium, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Asks about Lack of Data on Ethic Origin and the Removal of Belgian Nationality

21 April 2021

Dialogue also Addresses Education on Racism and Belgium’s Colonial Past

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this afternoon concluded its consideration of the combined twentieth to twenty-second periodic reports of Belgium on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. 

Committee Experts said the absence of data on ethnic origin made the assessment of this report difficult.  Could the delegation inform the Committee about measures considered to address this matter?  Committee Experts also asked the delegation to provide information about efforts to address issues related to education on racism and Belgium’s colonial past. 

With regard to the removal of nationality, Experts said that the Belgian nationality code created two categories of Belgians.  Establishing abstract categories created a risk of discrimination in practice.  The differences in treatment between different categories of Belgian citizens generated by this legislation were regularly the subject of criticism.

Tine Claus, Team Leader, Equal Opportunities Unit, Directorate General for Legislation, Freedoms and Fundamental Rights, Belgium’s Federal Public Service for Justice, explained that Belgium had been one of the main centres of European mobilisation in the BlackLivesMatter movement.  Following this citizen mobilisation which responded both to the case of the death of George Floyd but also to certain cases in the media in Belgium, the awareness of the extent of racism, its systemic nature and the importance of the response policy against this phenomenon had greatly increased.

Responding to questions about education on racism and Belgium’s colonial past, the delegation said both primary and secondary curricula in the Flemish system addressed the matter of colonialism.  In secondary education, since September 2019, the curricula envisaged that pupils be able to understand issues such as democracy, migration, imperialism, decolonisation, and colonisation.  Pupils were encouraged to study the past in a critical manner.  In the French community, colonisation and decolonisation were included in relevant standards, including the history curricula.  Colonisation and decolonisation were dealt with at various stages during the educational programme.  Efforts had been made to decolonise public space, such as the renaming of the Leopold II tunnel.

There were three procedures in Belgium to strip individuals of their Belgian nationality.  It was not an automatic procedure, and it could only be handed down by a court, with all legal safeguard in places.  It only concerned people who had dual nationality.  The Government was analysing how to take positive action in the public sector at the federal level.  This involved the participation of civil society.  The Government was working on improving data quality and data collection.  Delegates agreed that there were data gaps, and, as policies had to be developed on the basis of data, this matter was particularly important.  Efforts were also made to improve the collection of data on hate speech and hate crimes.

In his concluding remarks, Bakari Sidiki Diaby, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Belgium, expressed appreciation for the efforts made by Belgium to give teeth to the Convention and move from theory to practice.  He recalled that the concluding observations for Belgium would be adopted by the Committee as a whole, and thanked the delegation.

Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said this review would be useful for the drafting of the national action plan and in the upcoming Universal Periodic Review.  Reiterating Belgium’s commitment to the smooth functioning of the treaty body system, he regretted that the Committee had not allowed Belgium to benefit from the simplified reporting procedure.

Yanduan Li, Committee Chairperson, taking note of the position expressed by the Permanent Representative of Belgium, thanked the delegation for its replies, and its hard work.

Summaries of the public meetings of the Committee can be found here, while webcasts of the public meetings can be found here.  The programme of work of the Committee’s one hundred and third session and other documents related to the session can be found here

The Committee will next meet in public at 5 p.m. on Friday, 30 April, to close its one hundred and third session.

Report

The Committee has before it the combined twentieth to twenty-second periodic report of Belgium (CERD/C/BEL/20-22).

Presentation of the Report

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said Belgium had always been committed to actively cooperating with the various committees by submitting its periodic reports on time, initiating interactive dialogue during the oral presentation of its reports, and actively following up on recommendations made by the committees. 

Under Belgium’s unique federal structure, the Convention fell under the jurisdiction of several governmental entities.  The report and the response to the List of Issues that had been submitted for the Committee’s consideration were thus the result of close collaboration between the various federal and federated entities. 

In addition, contacts had been held with representatives of civil society ahead of this dialogue.  Belgium welcomed their presence during this constructive dialogue.  The composition of the Belgian delegation illustrated the plurality of bodies responsible for implementing the Convention, and reflected the structure of the Belgian State following various institutional reforms.

TINE CLAUS, Team Leader, Equal Opportunities Unit, Directorate General for Legislation, Freedoms and Fundamental Rights, Belgium’s Federal Public Service for Justice, outlining the important developments that had taken place since 2014 in Belgium in the field of the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, said that, at the institutional level, the Belgian State was committed to setting up a national human rights institution with full and transversal human rights coverage on its territory, in accordance with the Paris Principles.  The creation of a Federal Institute for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights was a first step along this path since it enabled coverage at the federal level.  It would in particular monitor the implementation of international obligations incumbent on the Belgian federal authorities.  At the legislative level, at various levels of power, initiatives had been taken to assess anti-discrimination and anti-racist legislation.  Thus, at the federal level, since 2016, a Commission of Experts had been evaluating the legislation in force.  In February 2017, this Commission issued its first interim report aimed at increasing efficiency and enforcement.  Several of its recommendations had already been implemented or would be implemented in the near future.  The final report of this Commission was expected in November of this year.   

Belgium had been one of the main centres of European mobilisation in the BlackLivesMatter movement.  Following this citizen mobilisation, which responded both to the case of the death of George Floyd but also to certain cases in the media in Belgium, the awareness of the extent of racism, its systemic nature and the importance of the response policy against this phenomenon had greatly increased. 

Ms. Claus said the integrated police had launched several pilot projects to develop a policy to prevent ethnic profiling.  Regarding the recording of hate crimes and hate speech, preparations were underway to optimise information technology systems in the short term to generate more detailed statistics on the target group victims of such crimes. 

In 2021, the Government would adopt a national action plan against racism.  This plan, drawn up in close collaboration with civil society and the Inter-federal Centre for Equal Opportunities, would adopt in particular concrete actions in the fields of employment, security, education, health and well-being, the media, youth and culture, sport and housing.  It would take an intersectional approach and undertake inclusive and target group specific actions when necessary.

The anti-Semitism watch cell had been relaunched in 2019.  It was a platform for dialogue and cooperation between representatives of the Jewish community, the Government and the Inter-federal Centre for Equal Opportunities.  Belgium was also making progress towards the recognition of its colonial past with the creation, within the Federal Parliament in July 2020, of a special commission responsible for examining Belgium's colonial past and its consequences in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. 

For many years, the Belgian Government had taken care to coordinate measures to combat trafficking and smuggling of human beings.  A new proposed action plan on this was currently on the political agenda.  In conclusion, Ms. Claus highlighted Belgium's efforts in the context of the COVID-19 health crisis.  Many instruments had been implemented to assess and mitigate the impact of this crisis on the most vulnerable groups, from the perspective of discrimination, diversity and inclusion. 

Questions by the Committee Experts

BAKARI SIDIKI DIABY, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Belgium, said the high-level composition of the delegation reflected the importance that the State party placed on dialogue with the Committee, especially during this global pandemic.  He sent his greetings to the dynamic and valiant Belgian civil society for its cooperation with the Committee and for its work in the field.  He thanked the head of the delegation for the useful presentation.

The absence of data on ethnic origin made the assessment of this report difficult, Mr. Diaby said.  Could the delegation inform the Committee about measures considered to address this matter, including alternative tools developed or envisaged, which would allow a more detailed understanding of the difficulties specific to certain groups, in particular concerning racial discrimination, as well as take stock of the implementation of the Convention?

Did the State party plan to adopt a royal decree applicable to the public sector to allow full application of the anti-discrimination laws of May 10, 2007?  The report stated that the anti-discrimination and anti-racism laws had undergone changes in 2018.  The Committee would welcome information on the innovations introduced.

The Committee wished to have information on progress made regarding organizations' access to justice, as well as disaggregated statistics on access to justice and at all levels of jurisdiction.

Noting with satisfaction the ratification by Belgium of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness on 10 June 2014, the Rapporteur requested information on the creation of a residence status for recognised stateless persons.

Mr. Diaby pointed out that, with regard to the removal of nationality, the Belgian nationality code had been significantly modified since 2012.  Thus, articles 23 and 23/2 of the Belgian nationality code indicated that only “Belgians who do not derive their nationality from a Belgian author or adopter on the day of their birth and Belgians who had not been granted their nationality under articles 11 and 11bis” may be deprived of their Belgian nationality.  This therefore created two categories of Belgians.  Establishing abstract categories created a risk of discrimination in practice.  The differences in treatment between different categories of Belgian citizens generated by this legislation were regularly the subject of criticism: a selection between so-called "native" Belgians and Belgians with an immigrant background.

Were measures envisaged to give effect to the recent ratification of the 1961 Convention lest the number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in Belgium increase?

What was the real contribution of civil society in the implementation of the national human rights institution, and what role would it play, precisely?  Noting that the Inter-federal Centre for Equal Opportunities, which had a “B” Status, had had to face several types of threats, including withdrawal from the Flemish region, he requested more information on this.

Other Committee Experts asked what measures had been taken to ensure access to justice for victims of crimes of racism.  They also inquired about racial profiling, algorithmic racism, racism within the police and training on racial discrimination.  How was the Government disaggregating offences related to racism from those related to discrimination, and identifying the needs of victims?  

Committee Experts also asked about measures taken to combat hate speech, including by cooperating with social media companies.  In particular, they mentioned Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.  They also inquired about the complaints submitted related to deportation procedures and detention at borders.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation assured the Committee that Belgium already had monitoring mechanisms in place which made it possible to detect issues related to discrimination, in particular several barometers that enabled in-depth analysis in the field of employment or access to housing in particular.  Belgium was planning a new monitoring project in partnership with the European Commission which should allow a global visualisation of all data related to discrimination and racism in Belgium.

It was not possible yet to implement positive actions in the public sector in order to implement the anti-discrimination law.  Now that the Federal Government was formed, it would be possible to adopt a Royal Decree to strengthen diversity within the federal administration, the delegation said.  Public bodies in the Brussels-Capital region were already required to implement a biannual diversity plan which aimed in particular to recruit people of foreign origin.

In the private sector, the Royal Decree of 11 February 2019 sets out the conditions for positive action.  These measures could be seen as an exception to the prohibition of discrimination, the delegation explained.  They required the approval of governmental authorities and must meet criteria outlined in the relevant royal decree.  This approach was new, and its effects had not yet been properly assessed. 

The Government had been working on improving the protection of workers.  Several projects were underway to integrate the prevention of discrimination, notably on the basis of origin, and improve witness protection in the workplace in cases related to discrimination.

There were three procedures in Belgium to strip individuals of their Belgian nationality.  It was not an automatic procedure, and it could only be handed down by a court, with all the legal safeguards in place.  It only concerned people who had dual nationality.  Providing additional information on the Belgian nationality code, delegates explained that some had to apply for Belgian nationality after turning 18, undergoing a process that included investigations into their past.  Those individuals had not been granted Belgian nationality automatically, and it was necessary that there be the possibility of stripping them of Belgian nationality, delegates said.

It was important that various stakeholders, including the Inter-federal Centre for Equal Opportunities, civil society organizations, and representatives of the scientific community be involved in a cross-cutting inter-federal plan to combat racism.  That was why the creation of a follow-up committee was envisaged in the draft text on the creation of this plan.

The federal human rights institution would be competent across the board at the federal level to the exception of specific questions dealt with by pre-existing sectorial bodies for the promotion and protection of human rights.  For instance, it would be competent on combatting terrorism, linguistic discrimination and issues related to business and human rights.  The choice had been made not to include individual complaints procedures, as other bodies in Belgium already did so.  The national human rights institution could bring issues before the Constitutional Court and bring collective suits in line with its mandate on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Flemish Government had said its collaboration with the Inter-federal Centre for Equal Opportunities would come to an end when the current cooperation agreement would expire.  The Flemish Government would set up a performant, independent institution, in line with Flemish anti-discrimination decree.

The Inter-federal Centre for Equal Opportunities decided independently on the management of its staff and internal affairs, delegates explained. 

The prevention of police violence was mostly done through training.  The Government had greatly invested in training to avoid abusive conduct.  The general training on the legislative framework and human rights was complemented by practical workshops, on managing violence for instance, and modules on matters such as stress management and intercultural communication.  Some training sessions were organised in collaboration with external partners.  Combatting racism and discrimination were priorities within the Police.  The use of body cameras also contributed to the prevention of police violence.

Any inappropriate conduct was investigated by independent authorities.  Anybody could file a complaint with the supervisory bodies and authorities.  The police also had internal monitoring bodies.  Prohibited conducts were investigated by internal and external bodies. 

On racial profiling, an identity check that was solely based on the alleged ethnic origin of the concerned individual was prohibited in Belgium.
  
Turning to data, delegates said the European agencies, the Ministry of Justice and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe had organised a workshop on the recording of hate crimes.  A working group had been assessing the recommendations stemming from this workshop.  These efforts aimed to foster a greater precision and improve the current typology, which included several categories, such as anti-Christianism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.  Beyond the recording of these crimes, the goal was to narrow down the language of hate speech to further sharpen policies. 

A code of conduct had been adopted to address the matter of online hate speech, which was used by the Inter-federal Centre for Equal Opportunities and the police.  This code of conduct notably sought to allow the removal of content from social media platforms.  Sites could be blocked from access following the intervention of prosecutors, delegates explained.  Victims of hate speech could now lodge complaints online.

Follow-up Questions

Committee Experts asked the delegation to provide information about efforts to address issues related to education on racism, Belgium’s colonial past, and hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent.

BAKARI SIDIKI DIABY, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Belgium, asked about religious symbols in schools and regulations on certain bathing suits, such as the burkini.

Replies to Follow-up Questions

Responding to questions about education on racism and Belgium’s colonial past, the delegation said both primary and secondary school curricula in the Flemish system addressed the matter of colonialism.  In secondary education, since September 2019, the curricula envisaged that pupils be able to understand issues such as democracy, migration, imperialism, decolonisation and colonisation.  Pupils were encouraged to study the past in a critical manner.

In the French community, colonisation and decolonisation were included in relevant standards, including the history curricula.  Colonisation and decolonisation were dealt with at various stages during the educational programme.

Regarding hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent, the delegation could not provide any figures on judicial proceedings, as, for the time being, the data only concerned “racism” in general.  The Government hoped to be able to disaggregate this data in the future.

Questions by Committee Members

BAKARI SIDIKI DIABY, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Belgium, thanking the delegation for the answers provided so far, asked about measures taken to help migrants in an irregular situation wishing to recover their salary arrears.

The Committee was interested in knowing what measures were being taken to allow migrants effective access to emergency health services regardless of their status.  What reproductive health care was available to migrant women?  

What measures had been taken or were envisaged aimed at decriminalising illegal residence, which prevented “undocumented” people from asserting their rights in Belgium?  What steps had been taken to ensure that the detention of foreigners seeking international protection was only a last resort, in accordance with the Dublin Regulation?

The Country Rapporteur inquired about measures taken or considered to ensure that professionals involved in the fight against trafficking in persons - police officers, medical personnel, judicial authorities and employees at specialised centres - had the required training and the necessary resources.  What steps were being taken to address stereotypes about minorities - people of African descent and other groups - in textbooks and curricula, and what connection was made between the colonial past of the State and the persistence of stereotypes in society?

Other Experts asked about measures taken to protect minority groups from the COVID-19 pandemic; the situation of Roma; disaggregated data; and data on people of African descent whose immigration background or lack thereof was not indicative of their race.

Replies by the Delegation

On migrants in an irregular situation wishing to recover their salary arrears, the law allowed the “illegally staying worker” to be paid in an equivalent way to a “legally staying worker”.  Since 2016, payments could no longer be made hand to hand; a bank transfer was required, save for a few exceptional cases.

Emergency health services were offered, including to minors.  Urgent help covered the medical fees for those in an irregular situation in Belgium.  It covered, for instance, physiotherapy, gynaecological care or a simple visit to the general practitioner. 

The Government provided legal support to all those in need, not just those facing a trial.  Migrants benefitted from a presumption of lack of resources, which facilitated their access to legal aid.

A prison sentence could not be handed for illegally being or staying in the country, in line with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice; illegal stays were not prosecuted per se in Belgium - it was only the case in conjunction with another infraction.
Detention related to the Dublin process was up to six weeks for the purpose of determining the State responsible and another six weeks to organise the transfer.

The new Government, which had been recently formed, wished to tackle the issue of human trafficking, and the 2021-2025 national action plan was being discussed at the political level, aiming to adopt a final draft by early May.

Pupils in Flanders were encouraged to consider the past in a critical way, considering different perspectives when doing so.  Human rights, democratic value and respect for all forms of diversity were among values inculcated.  In the Francophone education systems, the issue of stereotypes was addressed.  Efforts were made to promote the value of diversity. 

On awareness-raising, delegates remarked that, between 2016 and today, more than eight specific campaigns addressing racism and promoting diversity had been rolled out, including one on discrimination in employment and another focusing on stereotypes and the need to root them out.

Regarding linguistic discrimination, and on the issue of French speakers living in Flanders in particular, the language law was the result of a compromise to protect linguistic minorities, the delegation explained.  Several measures had been taken to ensure equality for all language groups.  The European Court of Human Rights had implicitly recognised that linguistic groups in Belgium did not necessarily have to be recognised as minorities, the delegation said.

In each region, there was a taskforce to monitor and address the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable groups.  A new strategy for the integration for the Roma was being drawn up with the input of civil society and the federal and federated governments; it would focus on the promotion of the Roma women and persons with disabilities, inter alia.

The delegation said that discrimination in employment was a criminal offense in Belgium.  Three bodies could intervene in matters of discrimination in employment: the social inspectorate, the labour auditor and the courts.  The Government had strengthened monitoring mechanisms, the delegation assured.

The Government was analysing, along with civil society, how to take positive action in the public sector at the federal level.  The Government was working on improving data quality and data collection.  Delegates agreed that there were data gaps, and, as policies had to be developed on the basis of data, this matter was particularly important.  Efforts were also made to improve the collection of data on hate speech and hate crimes.

Efforts had been made to decolonise public space, such as the renaming of the Leopold II tunnel.

Concluding Remarks

BAKARI SIDIKI DIABY, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Belgium, expressed appreciation for the efforts made by Belgium to give teeth to the Convention and move from theory to practice.  He recalled that the concluding observations for Belgium would be adopted by the Committee as a whole, and thanked the delegation. 

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said this review would be useful for the drafting of the national action plan and in the upcoming Universal Periodic Review.  Reiterating Belgium’s commitment to the smooth functioning of the treaty body system, he regretted that the Committee had not allowed Belgium to benefit from the simplified reporting procedure.

YANDUAN LI, Committee Chairperson, taking note of the position expressed by the Permanent Representative of Belgium, thanked the delegation for its replies, and its hard work.

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For use of the information media; not an official record