Belgium | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Belgium's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to changes in the survey methodology.


The Convention on the Future of Europe, established under the Belgian EU presidency, commenced work in 2002. Tensions between the two dominant ethnic groups, the Walloons and the Flemings, continued as the Lambermont devolution reforms took effect. Human rights groups criticized the treatment of resident minorities, asylum seekers, and journalists. Belgium sold arms to Nepal, and Belgium's law of universal jurisdiction suffered setbacks. Belgium apologized for having deported Jews to Nazi Germany. Minors were barred from participation in armed conflict.

Modern Belgium dates from 1830, when the territory broke away from the Netherlands and formed a constitutional monarchy. Today, the monarchy is largely ceremonial. Ethnic and linguistic antagonism during the 1960s prompted a series of constitutional amendments, during 1970-1971 and in 1993, which devolved power to regional councils at the central government's expense. A 1993 amendment made the country a federation of Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and bilingual Brussels (located in Flanders, with a Francophone population), with the German-speaking area accorded cultural autonomy. Another 1993 amendment established three directly elected regional assemblies with primary responsibilities 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.

A Green-Liberal-Socialist coalition has ruled Belgium since July 1999. Municipal voting in 2000 gave the right-wing, anti-immigrant Vlaams Blok, which seeks an independent Flanders, substantial electoral gains.

Ethnic and linguistic tensions between Walloons and Flemings intensified, partly owing to Flemings' resentment of the Lambermont accords, effective January 2002, which allow for subsidy transfers--ostensibly from Flemish tax revenues--to Wallonia, where unemployment is higher and gross domestic product lower. In September, the Council of Europe rebuked Belgium for violating Walloons' rights. The federal government, but not regional and national parliaments, signed the council's minority-protection convention.

Through the Convention on the Future of Europe, which started work in February, Belgium is pursuing a common EU citizenship, immigration and asylum policy, and increased rights for subnational regions.

In February, the International Court of Justice ruled that Belgium cannot prosecute the Congolese foreign minister, Yerodia Ndombasi, for the 1998 killings of ethnic Tutsis because he is entitled to diplomatic immunity. In July, a Belgian appeals court ruled that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cannot be tried for war crimes in absentia. Sharon, then defense minister, was charged for his role in the killings of civilians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in 1982.

The health minister, a member of the Flemish Green party, Agalev, resigned in August to protest the sale of 5,500 automatic rifles from a Walloon-based factory to Nepal to help quell a Maoist rebellion.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Belgians can change their government democratically. Nonvoters are subject to fines. Political parties generally organize themselves along ethnic lines. Constitutional disputes arise when a member of an ethnic group elected to office in the territory of a different ethnic group refuses to take a competency test in that territory's dominant language.

Freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed. Belgian law prohibits some pornography and incitements to violence. Libel laws have minor restraining effects on the press. Restrictions on civil servants' rights to criticize the government reduces the right of civil speech. Autonomous public boards govern the state television and radio networks and ensure linguistically pluralistic public broadcasting.

The daily newspapers have a combined circulation of two million. Sixteen are French; ten, Flemish; one, German; and one has both Flemish and French editions. The three state-run television and radio services serve each of the three language groups. In May, a Brussels court fined two reporters for the Belgian daily De Morgen for not revealing their sources in an article saying Belgian State Railways had overshot its budget to build a new high-speed train station in Liege.

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. Human rights groups voiced concern in May about increased anti-Semitism because synagogues, Jewish-owned stores, and the chief rabbi of Brussels were attacked. In October, Belgium apologized for the deportation of Jews to Nazi Germany. Jewish Holocaust survivors and Belgian banks agreed to US$54 million in compensation for cash left in accounts whose owners were killed.

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, and involving non-Belgian defendants.

The European Court of Human Rights ordered the Belgian government in October to pay compensation to a Roma family that had accused Belgium of human rights violations during the 1999 deportation of dozens of asylum-seeking Slovak Roma.

Also in October, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), noted that Belgium had improved its deportation practices. Human rights groups had criticized Belgium's procedures, citing the death of Nigerian asylum seeker Semira Adamu in 1998 during expulsion.

In October 2002, Belgium's Senate's Justice Commission voted to allow same-sex marriages. If the bill passes parliament, Belgium will be the second country, after the Netherlands, to legalize gay marriages.

Labor unions have the right to strike.

As of February, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict raised the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, and for compulsory government recruitment, to 18. Voluntary recruitment is allowed at 16.

The "Smet-tobback" law introduced a rule in 1994 that at least one-third of all people elected at all levels of government should be women. In 1975 a collective agreement was signed for equal pay; nevertheless, women still earn only 79.6 percent of what men earn, according to the European Industrial Relations Observatory.