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Title: Belgium Human Rights Practices, 1995 Author: U.S. Department of State Date: March 1996 BELGIUM 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 lower house of the bicameral Parliament. Constitutional reforms enacted in 1993 transformed Belgium from a unitary into a federal state. General elections held in May replaced regional councils with directly elected legislatures in Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and bilingual Brussels. Civilian authorities are in full 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 citizens. The Government fully respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and an independent judiciary provide effective means of dealing with instances of individual abuse. 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 political or other extrajudicial killings. b. Disappearance There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that officials employed them. Prison conditions meet minimum international standards, and the Government permits visits by human rights monitors. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile The law prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile and the Government observes this prohibition. Arrested persons must be brought before a judge within 24 hours. Pretrial confinement is allowed under 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 established 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, and pretrial confinement is thus fairly common. Approximately 30 percent of the total prison population consists of pretrial detainees. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision in practice. The Judiciary provides citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process, enforcing the law's provision for the right to a fair trial. 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. All defendants have the right to be present, to have counsel (at public expense if needed), to confront witnesses, to present evidence, and to appeal. 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. There were no reports of political prisoners. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence The law prohibits such practices, government authorities respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press The law provides for these freedoms, and the Government respects these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom. 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. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The law provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. 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 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. Taxpayers who object to contributing to religious subsidies have no recourse. By law, each recognized religion has the right to provide teachers at government expense for religious instruction in schools, but not all avail themselves of this right. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation The law provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. All asylum seekers can plead their cases before immigration authorities. There were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee/asylee status. Asylum seekers arriving by air with no papers may be detained for a maximum of 2 months in closed centers while awaiting consideration of their cases. Children in such centers do not attend school. Certain communes (administrative divisions of the Brussels region) such as Anderlecht, Brussels, and Saint Josse, which have already accepted large refugee populations, are not currently required by the central Government to give legal residence and benefits to new refugees/asylees. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens age 18 and older exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal and compulsory (under penalty of fine) suffrage. 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. Opposition parties operate freely. Women hold some high-level positions in the Government formed after the May general elections. Two of 15 federal Ministers are women, and in the federal Parliament, 18 of 150 House members and 16 of 75 senators are women. The law requires that 33 percent of the candidates on the ballot in the next general election, to be held no later than 1999, be 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. National decisions take into account the specific needs of each regional and linguistic group. The last general elections also replaced regional councils with directly elected legislatures in Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and bilingual Brussels. Each regional parliament elects from among its members a regional government, including a regional prime minister. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights Numerous human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are very cooperative and responsive to their views. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The law prohibits discrimination based on the listed factors, and the Government enforces it. With Dutch, French, and German as official languages, Belgium has a complex linguistic regime, including language requirements for various elected and appointed positions. Women The Government actively promotes a comprehensive approach to the integration of women at all levels of decision making. The Division of Equal Opportunity, a part of the Ministry of Labor, focuses specifically on issues affecting women, including violence against women, sexual harassment, and the participation of women in the political process. The law prohibits physical abuse of women, and the Government enforces this ban. In 1995 less than 1 percent of all crimes reported (2,217 out of 253,962) were rape or sexual assault. In 1995 the Ministry of Labor assessed the effectiveness of the two linguistic hot lines--Dutch and French--set up in recent years to assist victims of sexual harassment. Based on the nature and volume of the calls received, the Ministry determined that the hot lines were serving their planned purpose and is continuing them. The law prohibits organizing prostitution or assisting immigration for prostitution. In 1995 the Government targeted the problem of human trafficking by enacting protective measures. For example, work permits for cabaret dancers must be picked up in person, at which time a worker may be given a translation of her contract in her native language, and a brochure regarding shelters for victims of forced prostitution. Additionally, local government officials may refuse to perform "marriages of convenience." Finally, foreign-born victims may receive a temporary permit to stay in Belgium for up to 45 days and may stay longer if they cooperate with police to capture the trafficker. Children Belgium has comprehensive child-protection laws, which the Government enforces effectively. The Francophone and Flemish communities have agencies dealing with children's needs. Government and private groups provide shelters for runaways and counseling for children who have been physically or sexually abused. Children are the victims of up to 40 percent of rapes reported to the police. Children have 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, but, in response to recommendations made last year in a government study, police have received instructions to be especially diligent in combating prostitution of those who appear to be under the age of 18. There is no pattern of societal abuse directed against children. People With Disabilities There is no discrimination against disabled people in employment, education, or in the provision of other state services. The Government mandates that public buildings erected since 1970 be accessible to the disabled and offers subsidies to induce owners of other buildings to make necessary modifications. Many older buildings, however, are not accessible to the disabled. 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, such as job training. In September an accord was signed among the three regions which allows handicapped persons to receive services in any of the three regions. Previously, they could receive assistance only from the region where they resided. 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 fewer than 1 percent German-speakers. An Antiracism Law penalizes incitement of discrimination, hate, or violence based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. It is 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 people. The Center for Equal Opportunity and the Fight Against Racism, a parliamentary organization tasked with investigating complaints of discrimination based on race, handled 1,020 calls asking for information in the first 6 months of the year. Some 420 of these calls were to make actual complaints. In the general elections in May, the far-right, openly anti-immigrant parties (the Flemish Vlaams Blok, the Walloon Front National, and Agir) received 12.3 percent of the vote in Flanders, 6.3 percent in Wallonia, and 11.3 percent in Brussels. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association Under the Constitution, workers have the right to associate freely. This includes freedom to organize and join unions of their own choosing. The Government does not hamper such activities, and workers in fact fully and freely exercise their right of association. About 60 percent are members of labor unions. This number includes employed, unemployed, and retired workers. Unions are independent of the Government but have important links with major political parties. As the Government does not require unions to register, there are no prohibitions against antiunion actions before registration. Unions have the right to strike, and strikes by civil servants and workers in "essential" services are tolerated. The railway workers, airport workers, and air traffic controllers held strikes without government intimidation. There were a number of significant labor strikes and work stoppages in 1995. (Ministry of Labor data indicate there were 49 strikes in 1992; there are no strike numbers available after 1992.) Even though many strikes begin as wildcat actions, strikers are not prosecuted for conducting an illegal strike. For the first time in recent memory, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in its "Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights 1995" noted reports from the two major labor confederations indicating that "the right to strike was being increasingly undermined by employers and the judiciary." Of concern to the ICFTU was an "increasing tendency over the last few years for employers to seek the intervention of the courts in order to ban strikes or break up picket lines." It is easier today than it was a few years ago to get a court injunction against a strike if it can be shown to a judge's satisfaction that violence or an infringement of private property has occurred in the course of a strike. Unions are free to form or join federations or confederations and are free to affiliate with international labor bodies. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively The right to organize and bargain collectively is recognized, protected, and exercised freely. Every other year the Belgian Business Federation and unions negotiate a nationwide collective bargaining agreement, covering 2.4 million private-sector workers, that establishes the framework for negotiations at plants and branches. Public sector workers also negotiate collective bargaining agreements. Collective bargaining agreements apply equally to union and nonunion members, and over 90 percent of workers are under collective bargaining agreements. As part of the Government's global economic reform plan, in 1995 wage increases in both private and public sectors were suspended. This did not affect Belgium's wage indexation policy which permitted a less than 2 percent across-the-board wage increase to keep workers' pay level with inflation. 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 such as the labor courts exist for adjudicating disputes between labor and management. There are no export processing zones. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor Forced or compulsory labor is illegal and does not occur. Domestic workers and all other workers have the same rights as nondomestic workers. The Government enforces laws against those who seek to employ undocumented foreign workers. 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 but may not work full time except on limited duration 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. There are no industries where any significant child labor exists. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work In June the monthly national minimum wage rate for workers over 21 was set at $1,494 (43,318 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 extensive social benefits, provides workers with a standard of living appropriate to a highly developed nation. Minimum wages in the private sector are set in biennial nationwide collective bargaining (see Section 6.b.), which leads to formal agreements signed in the National Labor Council and made mandatory by royal decree for the entire private sector. 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. Longer workdays are permitted only if agreed upon in a collective bargaining agreement. These laws/regulations are effectively enforced by the Ministry of Labor and the labor courts. Comprehensive provisions for worker safety are mandated by law. Collective bargaining agreements can supplement these laws. 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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