Statement to the media by the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the conclusion of its official visit to Belgium, 4-11 February 2019
11 February 2019
Brussels, 11 February 2019
The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent thanks the Government of Belgium for its invitation to visit the country from 4 to 11 February 2019, and for its cooperation. In particular, we thank the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. We also thank the OHCHR Regional Office for Europe for their support to the visit.
The views expressed in this statement are of a preliminary nature and our final findings and recommendations will be presented in our mission report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2019.
During the visit, the Working Group assessed the human rights situation of people of African descent living in Belgium, and gathered information on the forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance they face. The Working Group studied the official measures taken and mechanisms to prevent systemic racial discrimination and to protect victims of racism, as well as responses to multiple forms of discrimination.
As part of its fact-finding mission, the Working Group visited Brussels, Antwerp, Liege, Namur and Charleroi. It met with senior officials of the Belgian Government at the federal, regional, community and local levels, the legislature, law enforcement, national human rights institutions, OHCHR Regional Office, non-governmental organizations, as well as communities and individuals working to promote the rights of people of African descent in Belgium. The Working Group toured the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA). It also visited the St. Gilles prison in Brussels.
We thank the many people of African descent and others, representing civil society organizations, human rights defenders, women’s organizations, lawyers, and academics whom we met during the visit. The contributions of those working to promote and protect the rights of people of African descent, creating initiatives, and proposing strategies to address structural racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance are invaluable.
The protection of human rights and the prohibition of racial discrimination is enshrined in Articles 10-11 in the Belgian Constitution. Belgium’s national anti-racism legislation is the 1981 anti-discrimination law, updated in 2007. Regions and communities also have anti-discrimination legislation.
We welcome the initiatives undertaken by Government at the federal, regional and community levels to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. We encourage efforts to raise awareness and support civil society including through the provision of funding.
The Working Group recognizes the important work of the Inter-Federal Centre for Equal Opportunities (Unia) in the protection and promotion of human rights, and in documenting racism and inequality at the federal and regional levels. Unia also provides recommendations on participation, tolerance, discrimination and diversity as well as their implementation in Belgium. Its diversity barometers provide important information on the human rights situation of people of African descent.
Throughout our visit we appreciated the willingness of public officials to discuss how public and private institutions may sustain racial disparities. We welcome the national network of expertise on crime against people, a robust infrastructure for combatting hate crime. In Brussels, Antwerp, Liege, Namur and Charleroi, the Working Group received information about social integration and intercultural efforts for new arrivals, including referral to language tuition. In Liege, we welcome the commitment enshrined in the Charter, Liege Against Racism.
The Working Group also welcomes the civil society initiatives to promote the International Decade for people of African descent in Belgium.
One of the ways the African diaspora in Belgium is expressing its voice is through cultural events such as the Congolisation festival to highlight the contribution of Congolese artists to the Belgian cultural landscape and make people begin to appreciate and reflect on the diaspora’s artistic heritage.
Despite the positive measures referred to above, the Working Group is concerned about the human rights situation of people of African descent in Belgium who experience racism and racial discrimination.
There is clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium. Civil society reported common manifestations of racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance faced by people of African descent. The root causes of present day human rights violations lie in the lack of recognition of the true scope of violence and injustice of colonisation. As a result, public discourse does not reflect a nuanced understanding of how institutions may drive systemic exclusion from education, employment, and opportunity. The Working Group concludes that inequalities are deeply entrenched because of structural barriers that intersect and reinforce each other. Credible efforts to counter racism require first overcoming these hurdles.
We note with concern the public monuments and memorials that are dedicated to King Leopold II and Force Publique officers, given their complicity in atrocities in Africa. The Working Group is of the view that closing the dark chapter in history, and reconciliation and healing, requires that Belgians should finally confront, and acknowledge, King Leopold II’s and Belgium’s role in colonization and its long-term impact on Belgium and Africa.
The most visible postcolonial discourse in a Belgian public institution takes place within the recently reopened Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), which is both a research and a cultural institution. RMCA has sought to review its approach to include critical, postcolonial analysis- a marked shift for an institution originally charged with promulgating colonial propaganda. The Working Group is of the view that the reorganization of the museum has not gone far enough. For those communities that do engage in vibrant postcolonial discourse, i.e., civil society and activists, the reorganization falls short of its goal of providing adequate context and critical analysis. The Working Group notes the importance of removing all colonial propaganda and accurately presenting the atrocities of Belgium’s colonial past. The RMCA admits that decolonization is a process and reports its intention to evolve towards sharing power with people and institutions of African descent.
The Working Group welcomes this process of decolonization, as even recent cultural production in Belgium reflects enduring legacies of the colonial past. For example, a 2002 exhibit of eight Africans in a private zoo in Belgium (Cameroonians brought to Belgium without visas) recalls Belgium’s notorious “human zoos” between 1897 and 1958.
Reportedly, between 1959 and 1962, thousands of children born to white fathers and African mothers in Belgian-ruled Congo, Rwanda and Burundi were abducted and sent to Belgium for adoption. The Working Group notes with approval that the 2016 appeal by Metis de Belgique for state recognition was met with an apology from the Catholic Church the following year and a 2018 parliamentary resolution on la ségrégation subie par les métis issus de la colonisation belge en Afrique. The Working Group commends the provision of funding for data gathering, research and accountability within this framework.
Belgium often refers to intercultural, rather than multicultural, goals with the idea of preserving individual cultural heritage and practices while coexisting in peace and prosperity with respect and regard for the intersection and interaction of diverse cultures. This diversity includes citizens, migrants, people of first, second, and third generation residency, highly educated people, and groups that have contributed enormously to the modern Belgian state. Interculturality requires reciprocity, rejection of harmful cultural stereotype, and valuing of all cultures, including those of people of African descent.
The Working Group notes with concern the absence of disaggregated data based on ethnicity or race. Disaggregated data is required for ensuring the recognition of people of African descent and overcoming historical “social invisibility”. Without such data, it is impossible to ensure that Belgium’s reported commitments to equality are actually realized. Some anti-discrimination bodies have found proxy data (relating to parental origin) that have informed equality and anti-racism analyses; additional data relating to regroupement famille (and other data) may also extend these analyses to Belgian citizens of African descent.
Belgium has a complex political system. This must not impede fulfilment of its obligations to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The lack of an A-Status National Human Rights Institution and a National Action Plan to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance must be addressed. Belgium should engage actively in partnership with people of African descent, particularly experts in navigating these complexities, to promote equality and to diminish entrenched racial disparity.
The Working Group notes both civil society and law enforcement acknowledge the prevalence of racial profiling in policing. Reportedly, counter-terrorism policies have contributed to an increase in racial profiling by law enforcement. The federal police recognized the concern with racial profiling and offered additional information about a pilot study in Mechelen to document all stops and searches (including a narrative basis for the stop) over a two-year period. However, it is unclear how this may effectively target racial profiling as the race of the community members stopped by the police are not included among the data captured by the stop report.
The Working Group visited St. Gilles Prison in Brussels. The Working Group found the prison dilapidated and overcrowded. It is scheduled for relocation in 2022. Frequent strikes by prison personnel dramatically impact the conditions of confinement for incarcerated people housed there, including suspensions of visitation, showers, phone access, recreation, and prolonged lockdowns. Another concern raised by the detainees was the lack of attention to their requests for medical attention. There were also individual reports of racist behaviour by some of the guards, and the administration committed to individually counselling perpetrators and zero-tolerance for racism.
The Working Group notes with deep concern, the lack of representation of people of African descent in the judiciary, law enforcement, government service, correctional service, municipal councils, regional and federal parliaments. These institutions do not reflect the diversity of the Belgian population. When the Working Group visited Belgium in 2005, the federal police reported the existence of a robust recruitment program to promote diversity. While this program was again presented as a serious commitment, no data are currently available to establish what improvements, if any, had been made in the past fourteen years and whether the program has been successful.
Civil society and community members commented on the lack of positive role models in the news media, on billboards, and in Belgian television and film. The French Community referenced best practices involving a barometer of print media aimed at measuring equality and diversity among journalists and in news content, and creating of an expert panel to broaden representation.
The Working Group noted deficiencies in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, among people of African descent in Belgium. According to research, sixty percent of Afro-Belgians are educated to degree level, but they are four times more likely to be unemployed than the national average. Eighty percent say they have been victims of discrimination from a very young age. Public officials consistently rationalized systematic exclusion of people of African descent with references to language and culture, even in cases involving second generation Belgians.
The Working Group repeatedly heard from civil society that Belgians of African descent faced “downgrading” and other employment challenges. People with university and graduate degrees reported working well-below their educational levels, including in manual labor despite possessing university certificates from Belgian universities. They also highlighted the difficulty in obtaining recognition of foreign diplomas. They also reported systematic exclusion from job assistance as job centers declined to refer people of African descent to employment opportunities at their educational levels. UNIA has also documented pervasive downgrading of employment and the prevalence of people of African descent working well below their education levels, despite the fact that they are among the most educated in the Belgian society.
The Working Group is concerned that primary and secondary school curricula do not adequately reflect the history of colonization as well as history and contributions of people of African descent in Belgium. Whether colonial history of Belgium is mentioned is largely dependent on interest and initiative of individual teachers. Where curriculum exists, it appears to recapitulate colonial propaganda including the suggestion that economic development came to Africa as a result of colonization while omitting references to key historical figures of African descent such as Patrice Lumumba. Reportedly, one-fourth of the high school graduates are unaware that Congo was a former Belgian colony.
At every interaction with civil society, the Working Group heard testimonies of the systematic practice of diverting children of African descent to vocational or manual training and out of the general education trajectory. This severely impacts the right to education and the right to childhood. Parents reported struggling to keep their children from being diverted, resisting transfers to vocational education, fighting to avoid having their children classified with behavioural or learning disorders and being threatened with the involvement of child protective services. A few parents discussed creative strategies to navigate these systems and secure their children’s education, including using the home school testing process and enrolling their children in boarding school. University students also reported being discouraged from continuing their educations or progressing.
Several community members discussed severe impact to their mental health due to racial discrimination. This included individualized racial slurs and hostile treatment, and several members of civil society in different locations mentioned the dramatic impact of daily racism on their lives – including depression and becoming withdrawn – and the fact that no one in authority in their schools ever noticed or intervened.
Civil society reported frequent discrimination in housing and rental markets. They would be immediately rejected by landlords who could detect an African accent over the phone or who recognized their names as African or informed the apartment was unavailable once they met the landlord face-to-face. Government informed of the use of “mystery calls,” a process involving the use of testers where landlords were identified as potentially discriminating unlawfully. The program was only recently commenced, pursuant to the Unia report and in conjunction with them, and few cases had been completed at the time of our visit.
The Working Group heard considerable testimony from civil society and community members on intersectionality, that people who meet the criteria for multiple marginalized groups may be particularly vulnerable, face extreme violence and harassment, and yet often remain invisible or deprioritized even within communities of African descent. This is particularly true for undocumented people of African descent whose lives are particularly precarious and who lack regularisation for years. In addition, women of African descent, particularly recent migrants, faced challenges pursuing justice, social support, or even shelter for domestic violence.
People of African descent and Muslim religious identity questioned why law enforcement authorities assumed they had terrorist ties. Some public officials implicitly acknowledged their role in this, including defending the use of racial profiling as a counter terrorism tactic and suggesting a false equivalence between anti-radicalism efforts and anti-racism programs, i.e., failing to understand that race-based assumptions regarding radicalism are inaccurate, grounded in bias, and divert key resources from protecting Belgian society from actual threats.
The Working Group is concerned about the rise of populist nationalism, racist hate speech and xenophobic discourse as a political tool. We reiterate the concerns raised by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2015 that the government has yet to adopt legislation declaring organizations which promote and incite racial discrimination illegal, in conformity with Article 4 of the Convention.
The use of blackface, racialized caricatures, and racist representations of people of African descent is offensive, dehumanizing and contemptuous. Regrettably, the re-publication of Tintin in the Congo unedited and without contextualization perpetuates negative stereotypes and either should be withdrawn or contextualized with an addendum reflecting current commitments to anti-racism.
The Working Group found little awareness about the International Decade for people of African descent. Civil society stands ready to support implementation of the Programme of Activities of the International Decade.
The following recommendations are intended to assist Belgium in its efforts to combat all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance:
The Government of Belgium should adopt a comprehensive inter-federal National Action Plan against racism, upholding the commitments it made 2002, following the World Conference Against Racism. The National Action Plan against racism should be developed in partnership with people of African descent.
Adopt a National Strategy for the inclusion of people of African descent in Belgium, including migrants, and create a National Platform for people of African descent.
Establish an independent National Human Rights Institution, in conformity with the Paris Principles, and in partnership with people of African descent.
The Government should consider ratifying the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
The Working Group urges the Government to comply with the recommendations made by the Unia, including those relating to combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
The Working Group urges the government to fund creative projects by people of African descent such as the House of African Culture, among others, with the view of raising the visibility of all forms of African expression and preserving the history and memory of the African Diaspora.
We urge universities throughout Belgium to endow chairs in African Studies, and prioritize the hiring of faculty of African descent, with the view to foster research and the dissemination of knowledge in this area, as well as to diversify the academy.
The Government should ensure funding for anti-racism associations run by people of African descent to enable them to be partners in combatting racism. The Working Group also recommends inclusive financing mechanisms for entrepreneurs of African Descent.
We welcome the renaming of the former Square du Bastion to Patrice Lumumba Square in June 2018 as well as an exhibit commemorating Congolese soldiers who fought in World War I, and encourage further, durable commemoration of contributions of people of African descent and the removal of markers of the colonial period.
We urge the government to give recognition and visibility to those who were killed during the period of colonization, to Congolese soldiers who fought during the two World Wars, and to acknowledge the cultural, economic, political and scientific contributions of people of African descent to the development of Belgian society through the establishment of monuments, memorial sites, street names, schools, municipal, regional and federal buildings. This should be done in consultation with civil society.
The Working Group recommends reparatory justice, with a view to closing the dark chapter in history and as a means of reconciliation and healing. We urge the government to issue an apology for the atrocities committed during colonization. The right to reparations for past atrocities is not subject to any statute of limitations. The Working Group recommends the CARICOM 10-point action plan for reparatory justice as a guiding framework.
The Working Group supports the establishment of a truth commission, and supports the draft bill before Parliament entitled “A memorial work plan to establish facts and the implication of Belgian institutions in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi”, dated 14 February 2017.
The authorities should ensure full access to archives relevant for research on Belgian colonialism.
The Working Group urges the relevant authorities to ensure that the RMCA be entrusted with tasks and responsibilities in the context of the International Decade for people of African Descent. In this context, the Working Group recommends that the RMCA be provided with appropriate financial and human resources, which would allow it to fully exercise the potential of this institution and engage in further improving and enriching its narrative, thus contributing to a better awareness and understanding of the tragic legacies of Belgian colonialism as well as past and contemporary human rights challenges of people of African descent.
The Working Group encourages the RMCA, in collaboration with historians from Africa and the diaspora, to remove all offensive racist exhibits and ensure detailed explanations and context to inform and educate visitors accurately about Belgium’s colonial history and its exploitation of Africa.
The Working Group urges the Government to provide specific, directed funding to the RMCA to enrich its postcolonial analysis. This funding should allow for innovations like QR codes on museum placards to provide more context and enrich intersectional analyses, including the historical and current interplay of race, gender, sexuality, migration status, religion and other relevant criteria.
The Working Group urges the Government to financially support a public education campaign in partnership with people of African descent, to learn and better understand the legacies of Belgian colonialism.
The Working Group strongly recommends that the Government collects, compiles, analyses, disseminates and publishes reliable statistical data disaggregated by race and on the basis of voluntary self-identification, and undertakes all necessary measures to assess regularly the situation of individuals and groups of individuals who are victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
The Working Group calls on the Government to address racial profiling and institute a policy of documenting and analyzing stops and searches nationwide, including race and skin color, in order to promote and ensure equality and fairness on policing; mitigate selective enforcement of the law; address enduring bias, stereotype, and beliefs about the need to surveil and control people of African descent.
Ensure that the robust framework set up for the prosecution of hate crimes is used more in practice.
Review diversity initiatives within justice institutions as well as other sectors including education and media, to develop clear benchmarks to increase diversity measurably and overcome structural discrimination and unconscious bias through positive measures, in accordance with the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Clarify and simplify jurisdiction of anti-discrimination authorities, creating one point of entry to ease reporting for victims and to coordinate and enhance accountability for perpetrators of racist harassment and violence, including accelerated judicial procedures.
The Government should review and ensure that textbooks and educational materials accurately reflect historical facts as they relate to past tragedies and atrocities such as enslavement, the trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism. Belgium should use UNESCO’s General History of Africa to inform its educational curriculum, among similarly oriented authoritative texts. We urge the government to promote greater knowledge and recognition of and respect for the culture, history and heritage of people of African descent living in Belgium. This should include the mandatory teaching of Belgium’s colonial history at all levels of the education system.
The Ministries of Education and the local Communities must determine whether there is a statistically significant difference in diversion of children of African descent from mainstream education into vocational or technical education streams, as compared to white Belgian children.
All teachers should complete anti-racism training, including training on implicit bias and specific manifestations in the context of their work. The training should involve testing to evaluate the understanding of diversity among teachers.
All public officials charged with education responsibilities must develop clear, objective, and transparent processes and criteria that govern when a child should be diverted from mainstream education, the need to guard against implicit bias and race-based outcomes in decision-making, and the right of parents to resist or overrule the recommendations of teachers without harassment.
The Government should take all necessary measures to combat racial discrimination and ensure full implementation of the right to adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate housing, access to affordable health care, employment and education for people of African descent.
Invest in integrated trust-building measures between the police, judicial institutions, the Unia, social integration institutions, anti-racist associations, and victims of racial discrimination and race and gender based violence, to ensure that racist acts, violence or crimes are systematically reported, prosecuted and compensated.
Belgium should conduct a racial equity audit within its public institutions and incentivize private employers and institutions to do the same. The purpose of the audit is to look for systemic bias and discrimination within the regular and routine operation of business. Belgium should commit to a public release of the findings and to implementing recommendations developed in the audit process.
Belgium should examine existing statistics and proxy data to determine whether people of African descent in Belgium, including Belgian citizens of African descent, experience and exercise their human rights consistently with the averages for all Belgians. This includes data on citizenship, parents’ place of birth, and regroupement famille (family reunification) data for reunification from countries of African descent.
Belgium should adopt clear, objective, and transparent protocols for job centers to ensure they do not perpetuate stereotype and bias, including requiring referrals to be based on level of education or experience, and recognizing that language should not be a disqualifying factor once a measurable competence is determined.
The Working Group recommends the Government support and facilitate an open debate on the use of blackface, racialized caricatures and racist representation of people of African descent. The republication of Tintin in the Congo should be withdrawn or contextualized with an addendum reflecting current commitments to anti-racism.
The Working Group calls on politicians at all levels of society to avoid instrumentalzing racism, xenophobia and hate speech in the pursuit of political office and to encourages them to promote inclusion, solidarity, non-discrimination and meaningful commitments to equality. Media is also reminded of its important role in this regard.
The Working Group reminds media of their important role as a public watchdog with special responsibilities for ensuring that factual and reliable information about people of African descent is reported.
The Working Group urges the Government to involve civil society organisations representing people of African descent when framing important legislations concerning them and providing those organizations with adequate funding.
The International Decade on People of African Descent should be officially launched in Belgium at the federal level.
The Working Group also encourages the Government to further implement the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda within Belgium, with focus on indicators relevant for people of African descent, in partnership with civil society. In view of Statbel’s 2018 report on poverty, the Working Group calls on the government to eradicate structural racism to attain the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Working Group would like to reiterate its satisfaction at the Government’s willingness to engage in dialogue, cooperation and action to combat racial discrimination. We hope that our report will support the Government in this process and we express our willingness to assist in this important endeavour.