Parliament adopted a law to establish a federal human rights institution. Arms transfers to warring parties in the conflict in Yemen continued. Civil society called for better responses to gender-based violence. The government continued its policy to detain children for repatriation purposes but was thwarted by the Council of State.
Legal, constitutional or institutional developments
At the end of April, the Federal Parliament adopted a law establishing a federal human rights institution. Civil society actors welcomed the law but were concerned about the limited mandate of the institution and about how it will fit into Belgium's complex institutional landscape.
Counter-terror and security
In January and February, new laws entered into force aimed at improving the system for the financial assistance for victims of terrorism-related attacks. Despite recommendations from victims’ associations, the authorities did not sufficiently address the complexity of the compensation system for victims of such attacks.
Children’s rights Dozens of children with at least one Belgian parent are being held in camps for internally displaced people, Al Hol, Al Roj and Aïn Issa in Northern Syria. Belgium repatriated six such children to Belgium, four orphans and two victims of international child abduction. Dozens of other children, who were accompanied by a parent, were not repatriated due to the state’s continued policy that it would not facilitate the return of adults. According to Child Focus at least 5 young Belgian children died in IDP-camps in 2019.
In April, the Council of State suspended the practice of holding families with children in detention for immigration purposes. In August 2018, the government had started detaining families with children in “family units” in the immigration detention centre of Steenokkerzeel, next to an airport landing strip. The practice was suspended on the basis of the possible health consequences of the noise from the airport. The government announced it would improve sound insulation in order to be able to resume the detention of families with children.
In February, the Commission evaluating policies relating to the voluntary and forced return of foreign nationals issued a mid-term report. This Commission was set up in February 2018 to review Belgium’s return policies and practices, following the identification and return of Sudanese nationals in violation of the principle of non-refoulement (whereby states are prohibited from returning individuals to a country where there is a real risk of persecution). Civil society was disappointed at the lack of critical evaluation, and the lack of civil society representatives and independent experts among the membership of the Commission.
In February, the Standing Police Monitoring Committee (“Committee P”) published a report on the police handling of refugees and migrants in transit, following a number of reports from NGOs alleging ill-treatment of refugees and migrants by the police. The Committee P concluded that migrants were treated “correctly and humanely” in “large-scale operations” and made policy recommendations for a more integrated, uniform and humane approach. A review of the Committee P report by Myria, the Belgian Federal Migration Centre, concluded the report did not contradict NGO findings, since it did not verify the cases reported by NGOs and only focused on large scale operations and on formal complaints. Myria highlighted a number of issues with protecting human rights of migrants during arrest, and recommended the authorities be more proactive in investigating police violence, also when no formal complaint was made.
Prisons continued to be overcrowded, prisoners were detained in dilapidated facilities and had insufficient access to basic services.
In May, the European Court of Human Rights gave its judgement in the case of Clasens v. Belgium. It found that during a protracted staff strike in 2016, material prison conditions amounted to a violation of the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.
In July, a new law entered into force that aims to introduce minimum service provision in prisons during industrial action.
Violence against women and girls
In February, the state submitted its first report to the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), outlining the state’s efforts to implement the Istanbul Convention. Nearly 50 civil society organizations urged Belgium to step up its efforts and to allocate sufficient resources to tackle gender-based violence.
The Walloon Region continued to allow arms transfers to members of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, following licences worth €195.8 million granted for transfers to Saudi Arabia in 2018.
In June, the Council of State cancelled eight licences stating that the Walloon Region had failed to examine the conduct of the buyer country. NGOs called on the government to stop arms transfers to countries committing serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Amnesty International and others launched the Walloon Arms Monitor, an attempt to hold the Walloon Region accountable to its international obligations with respect to arms trade.
Police and security forces
In February, the UN Working Group on People of African Descent conducted a fact-finding mission. The Working Group called for action on racial profiling by police, including through documenting and analyzing stop-and-searches. In December, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern at the persistence of ethnic profiling and urged Belgium to change its laws to explicitly prohibit ethnic profiling.
Several UN bodies, including human rights bodies and UNESCO, expressed concern over the persistence of racism and antisemitism and called upon the state to take measures.