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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.

(###)

[end of document]

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