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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Belgium

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Belgium, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa3714.html [accessed 25 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
 

 

Belgium is a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch who plays a mainly symbolic role. The Council of Ministers (Cabinet), led by the Prime Minister, holds office as long as it retains the confidence of the bicameral Parliament.

Constitutional reforms enacted in 1993 transformed Belgium into a federal state. The next general elections, to be held by the end of 1995, will replace regional councils with directly elected legislatures in Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

Civilian authorities are in effective command of the national, municipal, and judicial police forces.

Belgium is a highly industrialized state with a vigorous private sector and government participation in certain industries. An extensive social welfare system supports a high standard of living for most Belgians.

The Constitution and laws contain provisions safeguarding human rights, and the Government enforces them. In 1994 Parliament broadened existing antiracism legislation and passed a new law giving children a voice in judicial proceedings that affect them. A parliamentary commission published the results of its 15-month inquiry into human trafficking in Belgium, and the police and judiciary cracked down on prostitution rings. Applications for political asylum dropped dramatically due to strict policies adopted late in 1993.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of such killing.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

There were no reports of such treatment or punishment. Allegations of human rights abuses by Belgian forces serving in the U.N. operations in Somalia in 1992 and 1993 led to in-depth investigations by the Military Prosecutor's Office, covering 265 complaints; it concluded that in most cases the soldiers took appropriate action, but that 5 cases involving 8 paracommandos warranted prosecution. In December three of the eight were acquitted. In January 1995 four were given short prison terms and/or fines, and one was sentenced to 5 years in prison for the murder of a Somali. The Ministry of Defense conducted an inquest into the experience in Somalia which led to recommendations for the conduct of future operations.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is provided for by law, and the Government respects these rights. Arrested persons must be brought before a judge within 24 hours. Pretrial confinement is allowed only under certain legally specified circumstances. The premise for such confinement is subject to monthly review by a panel of judges, which may extend pretrial detention based on carefully circumscribed criteria (e.g., whether, in the court's view, the arrested person would be likely to commit further crimes or attempt to flee the jurisdiction if released). Arrested persons are allowed prompt access to a lawyer of their choosing or, if they cannot afford one, an attorney appointed by the State. Bail exists in principle under Belgian law but is rarely granted.

Exile is not permitted by law and does not occur.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law ensures a fair public trial, and the authorities honor this in practice. When a preliminary judicial investigatory phase is completed, a suspect is formally charged if the evidence so warrants. Charges are clearly and formally stated, and there is a presumption of innocence.

Defendants have the rights to be present, to have counsel (at public expense if needed), to confront witnesses, to present evidence, and to appeal. The Constitution provides for the judiciary's independence, and the Government respects this. Military tribunals try military personnel for common-law as well as military crimes. All military tribunals consist of four officers and a civilian judge; at the appellate level, the civilian judge presides. The accused has the right of appeal to a higher military court.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home or Correspondence

Freedom from arbitrary state interference with privacy is guaranteed by law and respected in practice. Search warrants issued by a judge are required unless the inhabitants of a domicile agree to a search.

In 1994 Parliament passed legislation under which law enforcement officials may apply to a magistrate for permission to use wiretaps. Permission is generally granted only for limited periods of time and only for the investigation of major crimes.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for these freedoms, and the Government respects them. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure there are no unwarranted restrictions.

The Government operates several radio and television networks but does not control program content. Programs are supervised by boards of directors which represent the main political, linguistic, and opinion groups. A government representative sits on each board but has no veto power. Private radio and television stations operate with government licenses. Almost all homes have access by cable to television from other Western European countries and elsewhere abroad. There are restrictions on the press regarding libel, slander, and the advocacy of racial or ethnic discrimination, hate, or violence. In two much-publicized cases, members of far-right political parties were tried for publishing materials deemed racist; none were found guilty.

Academic freedom is respected.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Public assembly is unrestricted except for restrictions on blocking some major thoroughfares and on entering a small zone near the Royal Palace and Parliament. The Government requires sponsors of open-air assemblies to obtain permits, but these are granted routinely. Citizens are free to form organizations and establish ties to international bodies, but the Antiracism Law (see Section 5) prohibits membership in organizations that practice discrimination overtly and repeatedly.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Government does not hinder the teaching or practice of any faith. The law accords "recognized" status to Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, and these receive subsidies drawn from general government revenues; objecting taxpayers have no recourse against contributing to religious subsidies. By law, each "recognized" religion has the right to provide teachers for religious instruction in the schools, but not all avail themselves of this right.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Belgians are free to travel both within the country and abroad, to return, and to emigrate.

All asylum-seekers in Belgium can plead their cases before immigration authorities. In 1994 the Interior Ministry cleared a backlog of applications that in 1993 numbered in the thousands. The Ministry now usually makes its initial decision within a week of receipt. The law requires that rejected applicants be deported within 2 months, but it grants them the right to appeal. There have been no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status.

Applications for political asylum fell by about 60 percent in 1994 owing to tightened policies introduced in September 1993, which include denying work permits to asylum-seekers awaiting decision, and fingerprinting all applicants (to prevent them from obtaining social benefits in more than one municipality). Also, the law now permits rejected applicants to be detained in special centers while awaiting deportation; three centers opened in 1994.

Parliament approved legislation in April creating a system of centralized registration, which should be in place in 1995, to replace the current one which calls for asylum-seekers to register in their chosen municipality of residence. In theory, those whose cases are pending would still be able to choose the municipality where they would reside and receive social benefits; but in practice, their choice might be limited by the Government's initiative to distribute asylum-seekers more equitably around the country. Currently, certain municipalities with large foreign-born populations have permission from the Government to refuse until 1995 legal residence to any foreigners from outside the European Union.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Direct popular elections for parliamentary seats (excluding some senators elected by provincial councils and others elected by Senate members) are held at least every 4 years under a system of universal, secret, and compulsory (under penalty of fine) suffrage for all citizens age 18 and over.

Opposition parties operate without repression. A four-party coalition constitutes the current Government.

There are no restrictions, in law or practice, on the participation of women or minorities in government or politics. Two of 16 federal ministers are women. In the federal Parliament, 9 percent (18 of 212) of House members and 11 percent (19 of 184) of the senators are women. The law requires a minimum level of representation of 25 percent for each sex on electoral tickets. The figure will rise to 33 percent after the next national elections in 1995.

The existence of communities speaking Dutch, French, and German engenders significant complexities for the State. All major institutions, including political parties, are divided along linguistic lines. There are specific provisions for Dutch-, French-, and German-speaking councils at the regional level. National decisions take into account the needs of regional and linguistic groups.

A package of constitutional reforms passed in 1993 is intended to decentralize authority. Beginning with the next general elections, to be held no later than December 1995, the regional councils will become directly elected assemblies which in turn will each elect from among its members the respective regional government's members. The number of seats in both houses of the federal Parliament will be sharply reduced.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Several active independent human rights groups operate freely without government interference. No requests have been made for outside investigation of the human rights situation in Belgium.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language or Social Status

Women

The Government actively promotes women's rights. In 1992 the Ministry of Labor created a Division of Equal Opportunity (EOD), whose priorities include combating violence against women and sexual harassment, encouraging women to participate in the political process and to run for elected office, and monitoring affirmative action programs.

In 1994 the EOD placed considerable emphasis on fighting sexual harassment. Having created in 1993 a Dutch-language telephone hot-line through which victims of sexual harassment could anonymously obtain information and guidance, free of charge, in 1994 the EOD started a French-language one. The usefulness of these hot-lines will be evaluated officially in early 1995. In addition, a recent law requires each private-sector workplace with at least 50 employees to have a sexual-harassment ombudsman, and so far an estimated 80 percent of these workplaces have complied. The EOD is seeking to expand this program to the public sector.

The law prohibits organizing prostitution or assisting immigration for prostitution. In March the parliamentary Commission on Human Trafficking (CHT) released the findings of its 15-month investigations of such activities in several Belgian cities and of police responses to them. It concluded that the activities were widespread and that police action was often insufficient, occasionally due to corruption but more often to inadequate training and poor coordination. The CHT's report made several recommendations for overcoming these problems. The police succeeded in closing down several clubs employing foreign women as prostitutes, and at year's end an alleged major figure in this trade was in pretrial detention.

The law prohibits physical abuse of women, and the Government enforces this ban. Available data do not indicate that abuse of women is widespread in Belgium. A government-sponsored study estimated that 6.5 percent of women had experienced rape or attempted rape and 5.2 percent had suffered serious physical or sexual violence from their partners. Legislation on sexual abuse was last amended in 1989, when the definition of rape was broadened and penalties made more severe. The Justice Ministry provides comprehensive training materials to police, medical workers, and others who deal with victims of sexual abuse. In August the Army dropped all distinctions between men and women in its regulations. Women are now eligible to apply for any position in the armed forces, but they are required to meet physical standards that are the same for both sexes.

Children

Belgium has comprehensive child-protection laws, which the Government enforces effectively. The Francophone and Flemish communities have agencies dealing with children's needs.

On October 1, a new law took effect giving children the right to a voice in court cases that affect them, such as divorce proceedings. The law states that a minor "capable of understanding" can request permission to be heard by a judge, or a judge can request an interview with a child.

Child prostitution is of limited scope in Belgium. The CHT's report in March recommended stronger government action to combat it. The Government issues printed materials and videos aimed at raising public awareness of child abuse.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Belgium is a pluralistic society in which individual differences in general are respected and linguistic rights in particular are protected. Some 60 percent of citizens are native Dutch-speakers; about 40 percent French-speakers; and a small minority, German-speakers.

In April the 1981 Antiracism Law was amended to increase penalties for incitement of discrimination, hate, or violence based on the race, ethnicity, or nationality. The amendments also made it specifically illegal for providers of goods or services (including housing) to discriminate on the basis of any of these factors, and for employers to consider these factors in their decisions to hire, train, or dismiss personnel.

The Center for Equal Opportunity and Against Racism (CEOAR), charged by Parliament with promoting integration and interethnic dialog, initiated legal proceedings against certain members of the Front National and Agir, two major Francophone far-right political parties, under the 1981 law. This law, however, has only rarely been applied successfully.

In the European Parliament elections in June and the provincial and municipal elections in October, the far-right, openly anti-immigrant parties (the Flemish Vlaams Blok and Walloon Front National and AGIR) received somewhat stronger support than had generally been foreseen, but their backing was concentrated in a few urban areas. Following the elections, Belgium's mainstream political parties honored pledges not to form government coalitions with the far right.

Although immigration policy continues to be controversial, there have been no overt campaigns of violence against immigrants. In May arsonists attacked an unoccupied hostel for asylum-seekers which was under construction in Wallonia. In June a Moroccan was wounded by gunfire in Verviers in skirmishes provoked by a Belgium-Morocco World Cup soccer match. Tensions in several immigrant neighborhoods decreased due to outreach programs by local police and to the construction of various youth-oriented facilities.

People with Disabilities

The Government mandates that public buildings erected since 1970 be accessible to the disabled, and for other buildings it offers subsidies to induce owners to make such modifications.

The Government provides financial assistance for the disabled. It offers special aid for parents of disabled children and for disabled parents. Regional and community programs provide other assistance for the handicapped, such as job training.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have the right to associate freely and to strike; the Government does not hamper such activities. The law prohibits actions against a union that is seeking to be legally registered. Unions are independent of the Government but have important informal links with major political parties. Belgian unions are affiliated with international labor organizations.

There were a number of strikes in 1994. For some public employees, such as those who provide essential public services, the right to strike is not explicitly recognized; but they often do strike. Laws and regulations prohibit retribution against strikers and union leaders, and the Government effectively enforces these provisions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The right to organize and bargain collectively is recognized and exercised freely. The Belgian business federations and unions negotiate every other year a nationwide collective bargaining agreement covering the 2.4 million private-sector workers, which establishes the framework for negotiations at plants and branches.

The law prohibits discrimination against organizers and members of unions, and protects against termination of contracts of members of workers' councils, members of health or safety committees, and shop stewards. Employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities. Effective mechanisms exist for adjudicating disputes between labor and management.

Belgium has no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is illegal and does not occur.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment of children is 15, but schooling is compulsory until the age of 18. Youth between the ages of 15 and 18 may participate in part-time work/part-time study programs. Students may also sign summer-labor contracts of up to 30 days. During that period, they can work the same number of hours as adults. The labor courts effectively monitor compliance with national laws and standards.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

In June the monthly national minimum wage rate for workers age 21 and over was set at $1,333 (42,469 Belgian francs); 18-year-olds can be paid 82 percent of the minimum, 19-year-olds 88 percent, and 20-year-olds 94 percent. The minimum wage rate, coupled with Belgium's generous social benefits, provides workers with a standard of living appropriate to a developed nation.

Minimum wages in the private sector are set in biennial nationwide collective bargaining (see Section 6.b.), which leads to a formal agreement signed by the National Labor Council and made mandatory for the entire private sector by royal decree. In the public sector, the minimum wage is determined in negotiations between the Government and the public-service unions. The Ministry of Labor effectively enforces the law regarding minimum wages.

By law the standard workweek cannot exceed 40 hours and must have at least one 24-hour rest period. Many collective bargaining agreements set standard workweeks of 36 to 39 hours. The law requires overtime pay for hours worked in excess of the standard. Work done from the 9th to the 11th hour per day or from the 40th to the 50th hour per week is considered allowable overtime. In special cases, workdays of up to 12 hours and workweeks of up to 52 hours are permitted. Work beyond 12 hours per day or 52 hours per week is not permitted.

Collective bargaining agreements include provisions for worker safety in addition to the comprehensive ones mandated by law. Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their safety or health, without jeopardy to their continued employment, and the law protects workers who file complaints about such situations. The Labor Ministry implements health and safety legislation through a team of inspectors and determines whether workers qualify for disability and medical benefits. Health and safety committees are mandated by law in companies with more than 50 employees and by works councils in companies with more than 100 employees. Labor courts monitor effectively compliance with national health and safety laws and standards.

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