Freedom in the World
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Assuming the European Union (EU) presidency in the middle of 2001, Belgium sought to downplay its own internal divisions while promoting Continental integration and tolerance. Nonetheless, tensions between the country's two dominant ethnic groups, the Walloons and the Flemings, continued to simmer. Political scandals dogged the country's political establishment, forcing the resignation of Flanders's interior minister. The country's foreign minister faced corruption charges concerning the illegal sale of EU visas to members of organized crime syndicates. Belgian courts convicted four Rwandans on war crimes charges and heard war crimes complaints against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Other complaints of crimes against humanity were filed from several other countries.
Modern Belgium dates from 1830, when the territory broke away from the Netherlands and formed a constitutional monarchy. Today, the largely ceremonial monarchy symbolizes the weakness of Belgian unity. Ethnic and linguistic antagonism during the 1960s prompted a series of constitutional amendments, in the period 1970--1971 and in 1993, which devolved power to regional councils at the expense of the central government in Brussels. A 1993 amendment formally transformed the country into a federation of Flanders, Wallonia, and bilingual Brussels, with the German-speaking area accorded cultural autonomy. Also in 1993, parliament adopted an amendment establishing three directly elected regional assemblies with primary responsibility for housing, transportation, public works, education, culture, and the environment. The weak central government continues to oversee foreign policy, defense, justice, monetary policy, taxation, and the management of the budget deficit.
Belgium's current coalition government, formed in July 1999, is composed of Greens, Liberals, and Socialists. In municipal voting in 2000, the right-wing, anti-immigrant Vlaams Blok registered substantial electoral gains in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium. Holding 20 of the 55 seats in the city's municipal council, the party commands 15 percent support throughout Flanders. The party seeks to separate Flanders from the French-speaking southern part of the country and declare the area an independent state. The party also supports the deportation of all non-European foreigners back to their home countries.
Ethnic and linguistic tensions between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings continued to simmer. Walloons worry over identity loss, despite favorable language laws, and many Flemings call for a confederated or separate state. Flemings harbor resentments over the Lambermont accords, the terms under which federal powers are devolved to Belgium's regions. The accords allow for subsidy transfers--ostensibly from Flemish tax revenues--to Wallonia, where unemployment is higher.
Political parties are split along linguistic lines, with both Walloon and Flemish parties ranging across the political spectrum. Numerous small ethnic parties and special interest groups have emerged, which has led to a decline in the dominance of the three major parties: the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and Liberals.
In September, Johan Sauwens, the interior minister of Flanders, resigned from his post. His nationalist Volksunie Party forced him to resign after he attended a gathering of Belgian former members of the Nazi-era SS. In October, a Belgian court formerly accused Foreign Minister Louis Michel of covering up a scandal involving the sale of EU entry visas to members of organized criminal groups.
Belgians can change their government democratically. Nonvoters are subject to fines. Political parties generally organize themselves along ethnic lines, with different factions of the leading parties subscribing to a common platform for general elections. Each ethnic group has autonomy in its region, but constitutional disputes arise when members of one group elected to office in a different territory refuse to take competency tests in the dominant language of that region.
The country's judiciary is independent but has continued to experience criticism as a result of recent political and criminal scandals.
A 1993 law allows Belgian courts to try alleged war criminals. The law was expanded in 1999 to allow courts to hear cases of genocide and other crimes against humanity, committed anywhere, involving non-Belgian defendants. In June, a Belgian court began deliberations over whether to indict Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on charges of crimes against humanity. A group of Belgians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Moroccans submitted a complaint assigning to Sharon responsibility for the deaths of 800 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, while he was defense minister.
In August, a Belgian court convicted four Rwandans, including two nuns, for their role in the 1994 genocide in their country. By the end of 2001, complaints of massacres and other alleged crimes had been filed against current and former leaders from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
While freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed, Belgian law prohibits some forms of pornography as well as incitements to violence. Libel laws have some minor restraining effects on the press, and restrictions on the right of civil servants to criticize the government may constitute a slight reduction of the right to civil speech. Autonomous public boards govern the state television and radio networks and ensure that public broadcasting is linguistically pluralistic. The state has permitted and licensed independent radio stations since 1985.
Belgians enjoy freedom of religion and association. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim institutions are state subsidized in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, and other faiths are not restricted. Immigrants and linguistic minorities argue that linguistic zoning limits opportunity.
Amnesty International cited instances of mistreatment of asylum seekers by police during the year. Police allegedly sometimes beat foreigners in custody, and employ painful restraint methods when detaining or transporting illegal immigrants.
Belgium has enacted measures to promote sexual equality, including the prohibition of sexual harassment. Legislation mandates that, in the next general parliamentary election, 33 percent of the candidates be women. Approximately 60 percent of the workforce holds membership in labor unions, which have the right to strike--one that they frequently exercise--even in "essential" services.