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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Belgium

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Belgium, 30 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa46c.html [accessed 29 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 longstanding parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch whose role is largely ceremonial. King Albert II acceded to the throne in August, following the death of his brother, King Baudouin I. The Council of Ministers (Cabinet), led by the Prime Minister, is responsible for government decisions. The Cabinet holds office as long as it retains the confidence of the bicameral Parliament.

Constitutional reforms passed by Parliament in July transformed Belgium into a federal state. Directly elected legislatures will replace regional councils in Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and the Brussels capital region. In addition to further decentralizing government authority, the July reforms will reduce the size of the national Parliament.

National, municipal, and judicial police forces bear the primary responsibility for domestic security. The armed forces play no role in domestic law enforcement.

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 for respect for human rights, which are observed in practice. The Government is sensitive to allegations of domestic human rights violations.

Controversy over immigration continued as the backlog of asylum requests nearly doubled in the first half of 1993. In response, several local governments announced that they would refuse legal residence and usual social services to asylum seekers. The Government termed such actions illegal. At the end of the year, a number of municipalities and communes, including Liege, continued to refuse to register asylum seekers, thereby denying them federally mandated social benefits. Many local governments reportedly did not follow a consistent policy, registering some, but not all, asylum seekers.

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 known political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

Abductions, secret arrests, and clandestine detentions are not known to occur.

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

There were no reports of such treatment or punishment being employed in Belgium. See Somalia report for allegations of human rights abuses by Belgian forces serving with the United Nations Operations in Somalia. A Belgian Ministry of Defense inquiry was launched in August and, separately, the Military Prosecutor's Office continued to examine certain allegations of mistreatment by Belgian military personnel.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is provided for by law and respected in practice. 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, who 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

A fair public trial is assured by law and honored in practice. A suspect is formally charged, if the evidence so warrants, once a preliminary judicial investigatory phase is completed. Charges are clearly and formally stated, and there is a presumption of innocence.

Defendants have the right to be present, the right to counsel (provided at public expense if needed), the right to confront witnesses and present evidence, and the right of appeal. The judiciary's independence is provided for by the Constitution and observed in practice. Belgium has a system of military tribunals, before which military personnel are tried for both military and common law crimes. All Belgian military tribunals, including those at the appellate level, are composed of four officers and one civilian judge. The superior officer presides at the level of first instance; the civilian judge presides at the appeals tribunal. The accused has the right of appeal to a higher military court. The military tribunal system continued to be under review in 1993; the Government is considering the abolishment of tribunal authority over all but strictly military offenses.

Beginning in October, all new judges were required to demonstrate legal knowledge and their qualifications for the position through an examination process directed by eminent jurists and legal scholars. The first competency examinations were given to judges in 1992. In October 1993, the Government began dismissing those judges who fared poorly on the tests.

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. Access to information from wiretaps is restricted under law, but their use remained illegal pending parliamentary action.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

These freedoms are assured by law and respected in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and press. Academic freedom is respected.

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.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Public assembly is subject to regulations concerning public order but is otherwise unrestricted. Groups protesting government policies or actions are free from harassment and persecution. Permits are required for open-air assemblies but are granted routinely; there are restrictions on blocking major arteries to and from downtown Brussels and on entering a small zone near the Royal Palace and Parliament. Belgians are free to form organizations and establish ties to international bodies.

c. Freedom of Religion

Belgium has a long tradition of religious tolerance. The Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Jewish, and Muslim religions are accorded a "recognized" status in law and granted a government subsidy. Government subsidies to recognized religions are drawn from general government revenues. Objecting taxpayers have no recourse against contributing to religious subsidies. Minority "unrecognized" religions enjoy full freedom to practice and are not subject to harassment or persecution. Organized religions may establish places of worship and train numbers of clergy adequate to serve believers. Links may be maintained with coreligionists in other countries or a supranational hierarchy, and foreign missionaries may proselytize. By law, all officially "recognized" religions have the right to provide teachers to give 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 and may return to Belgium at any time. Emigration is not restricted, nor is citizenship revoked for political reasons. Citizens are free to choose their places of work and residence. The Government does not force asylum seekers to return to countries where they face persecution.

Increasing applications for political asylum had created a large backlog by August. In response, the Parliament authorized the hiring of 100 additional government lawyers to adjudicate asylum cases. Six Brussels-area municipalities with large foreign-born populations have permission from the Government to refuse until 1995 legal residence to any foreigners from outside the European Community. The city of Liege, which has Belgium's largest refugee population, and certain other municipalities announced that they would deny legal residence and nationally mandated social services to asylum seekers. Other communes reportedly registered some but not all asylum seekers who applied. If refused in one locale, asylum seekers have the option of seeking registration as legal residents in another, thus gaining entitlement to social services.

Calling the actions of recalcitrant local governments illegal, the national Government has favored a political rather than a legal or administrative approach to resolving the problem. In Belgian law, only the individual applicant has legal standing to litigate against an authority refusing to register him or her. Administrative procedures to compel local government compliance with national law are cumbersome. At year's end, the Interior Ministry was seeking to establish a centralized national asylum seekers' register by which it hoped to receive better cooperation from local governments by ensuringa more equitable distribution of the human and financial burden of hosting asylum seekers.

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

Participation in the democratic political system is open to all citizens 18 years of age and over. 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 adults.

In law and practice, opposition parties are free to operate without constraints or repression. Of the 24 parties competing in the last national elections in November 1991, 14 gained seats in Parliament. A 4-party coalition Government, the members of which secured 52 percent of the popular vote, has been in power since March 1992. There are no restrictions, in law or in practice, on the participation of women or minorities in government or politics. Two of 16 federal ministers, 2 of 8 Flemish regional ministers, and 1 of 4 Francophone community ministers are women. There are no women ministers in the Walloon or Brussels regional, or Germanophone community, governments. In the federal Parliament, 19 of 212 house members (9 percent) and 20 of 184 senators (11 percent) are women. About 12 percent of provincial council members are women, as are about 14 percent of municipal council members.

The Government sent to Parliament at the end of 1993 a draft law that would require at least 33 percent representation of each sex on electoral tickets beginning in 1999. Until then, the law would require, beginning in 1994, a 25 percent gender minimum for communal and municipal elections only.

The presidents of Belgium's main political parties are males. The two Green parties (Flemish Agalev and Francophone Ecolo) do not have party presidents. Some of Agalev's most prominent members are women.

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. Regional and linguistic needs are taken into account in national political and economic decisions.

A package of constitutional reforms passed in July will transform the regional councils into directly elected assemblies. These in turn will elect from among their members the regional governments. The reforms further decentralized authority by adding trade and agriculture to the responsibilities of the regional governments. Under the new laws, the next federal Parliament will have the reduced membership stipulated by the constitutional reforms. It will be formed at the next parliamentary elections, to take place at the latest by December 1995. The federal House of Representatives will be reduced from 212 to 150 directly elected members. The new Senate will shrink from 183 to 71 members, 40 of whom will be directly elected, 21 designated by regional assemblies, and 10 selected by the Senate.

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. The 1994 budget stipulates that a director, to be hired in mid-1994, will begin work on a national women's center; this work is expected to be completed by the end of 1994. A number of commissions have been established to ensure that women's rights are protected and to oversee women's education and working conditions. A 1992 royal decree prohibited sexual harassment in the workplace in both the public and private sectors, where sexual harassment ombudsmen must be designated in all workplaces with at least 50 employees.

Credible reports of organized rings smuggling foreign women into Belgium for the purpose of prostitution received wide publicity. A parliamentary commission was created in December, 1992 to investigate. In 1993 it released three public statements but not its final conclusions. Belgian law prohibits organizing prostitution, assisting illegal immigration into Belgium, and providing illegal employment. No leaders of rings trafficking in women had been arrested by the end of 1993, although disciplinary action had been taken against police officers in Ghent for assisting the rings.

Physical abuse of women is punishable by law, and the law is enforced. In reaction to a 1988 government study that concluded that 25 percent of Belgian women had encountered some form of physical abuse, legislation on sexual abuse was enacted in 1989, broadening the scope of the previous legislation to allow for prosecution of conjugal sexual abuse and rendering penalties more severe. Certain sexual abuse cases may be tried before a court of assizes, a higher instance than the usual district court.

Children

Belgium has comprehensive child protection laws. Administration of youth welfare programs is handled at the linguistic community level. Human rights groups have criticized the law that allows the imprisonment of children for up to 15 days when there is no space in juvenile detention centers. There are occasional reports of judges sending juvenile offenders to prison in Wallonia.

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 Belgians are native Dutch speakers living primarily in the northern provinces that constitute Flanders. The approximately 40 percent of the population who are French speakers live mostly in Brussels and the southern provinces of Wallonia. A small minority of German speakers lives along the eastern border. The 1993 laws that federalized Belgium were the latest of hundreds passed over the past century to protect each language group from cultural, economic, or political dominance by the others.

Food, shelter, health care, and education are supposed to be available to all residents regardless of race, sex, religion, language, social status, or ethnic background. Some communes, however, contined to refuse to register new asylum seekers, thereby denying then mandated social services in those specific localities. (See Section 2.d. regarding an effort to ease this problem by the establishment of a national asylum seekers' register.). Some 27 percent of the residents of Brussels, the largest city, are foreigners. Many of these are North African and Turkish immigrants. Encouraging the further integration of the immigrant population and coping with the rising number of asylum seekers and Eastern European immigrants continues to be a focus of strong public debate. The national Center for Equal Opportunity and Against Racism, charged by Parliament with promoting integration and interethnic dialog, began work in 1993. Its director, as chairman of the Interministerial Council on Minority Affairs, reports directly to the Prime Minister. The Center spent much of its first year organizing and hiring. Priority projects include helping to establish a representative council for the Muslim community of Belgium (through which the Government could distribute funds for the Muslim clergy). By year's end, the Center had opened a mediation center to handle complaints about racism and xenophobia, and its legal section was studying ways to propose strengthening Belgium's 1981 law against racist and xenophobic acts.

According to polls, support for the extreme rightist, openly anti-immigrant Flemish party, Vlaams Blok, increased slightly since it won 12 parliamentary seats in the 1991 elections. Mainstream parties generally treat the Vlaams Blok as a pariah or ignore it. The party continues to call for repatriation of immigrants to their native lands. Belgium has not experienced concerted, overt campaigns of violence directed at immigrants, asylum centers, or hostels. The one series of incidents of violence against foreigners in 1993 occurred in the town of Sint-Truiden, where Sikh migrant agricultural workers were repeatedly harassed and intimidated by some of the local residents. In early August a Sikh was shot in the arm and the following week a firebomb slightly damaged a house where 10 Sikhs lived but caused no injuries. Two men were arrested shortly after the attack and were awaiting trial at year's end. The size and scope of future immigration continues to be a sensitive political topic, and many underlying issues regarding integration of existing immigrant groups have yet to be addressed.

People with Disabilities

Each of the three linguistic community councils administers a fund for the social integration of the disabled. The funds support placement of the disabled in jobs and schools, and include payment for necessary accommodations. Dedicated public housing for the disabled is available and government facilities built since 1970 must be accessible to the handicapped. There are, however, no laws prohibiting discrimination against the disabled in semipublic accommodations such as restaurants or private schools.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

With an estimated 76 percent of its labor force organized, Belgium is one of the most unionized countries in the world. It has a long tradition of democratic trade union elections. Workers have the right to associate freely and to strike. Unions striking or protesting government policies or actions are free from harrassment and persecution. Significant strikes occurred in 1993 in the education, shipbuilding, and social welfare sectors. In certain narrowly defined circumstances, however, such as in the provision of essential public services, public employees' right to strike is not explicitly recognized. Public employees may and often do strike (e.g., education personnel in 1993). Laws and regulations prohibit retribution against strikers and union leaders. The Government effectively enforces these laws and regulations.

Labor unions are independent of the Government but have important informal links with and influence on several of the major political parties. Belgian unions are affiliated with the major international bodies representing labor, such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Confederation of Labor.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

The right to organize and bargain collectively is recognized and exercised freely. Management 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 plant and branch level.

The right to due process and judicial review are guaranteed for all protected activity. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination against union members and organizers and provides special protection against termination of contracts of shop stewards and members of workers' councils and of health and safety committees. Employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are forced to reinstate workers fired for union activities. Effective mechanisms exist for adjudicating disputes between labor and management. Belgium maintains a system of labor tribunals and regular courts which hear disputes arising from labor contracts, collective bargaining agreements, and other matters.

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. Some categories of youth between the ages of 15 and 18 are on a part-time work/part-time study program. Students can also sign summer labor contracts limited to 30 days. The labor courts effectively monitor compliance with national laws and standards. Legislation tightening conditions of child labor in entertainment and related occupations was adopted in 1992.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

A maximum 40-hour workweek is mandated by law, although many collective bargaining agreements call for workweeks between 36 and 39 hours.

The minimum wage rates in the private sector are set in biennial nationwide negotiations between the leading trade unions and the Belgian Business Federation. After agreement is reached, a formal collective bargaining agreement is signed by the National Labor Council and is 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.

Comprehensive health and safety legislation is supplemented by collective bargaining agreements on safety issues. The Labor Ministry implements this 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 effectively monitor compliance with national laws and standards.

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