Freedom in the World
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The country's highest court ruled in November that the far right Vlaams Blok party, whose platform is based on Flemish independence and opposing immigration, was guilty of violating anti-racism laws. In June, the party garnered considerable support during local and European Parliament elections. A number of concerns were raised over the year about human rights abuses in the country, especially the ill-treatment of criminal suspects in police custody.
Modern Belgium dates from 1830, when the territory broke away from the Netherlands and formed a constitutional monarchy. Today the monarchy is largely ceremonial. Belgium was one of the founding members of the European Economic Community and still hosts the central administration of the European Union (EU) in Brussels.
Ethnic and linguistic conflicts broke out between the different communities in the country during the 1960s, prompting a number of constitutional amendments in 1970, 1971, and 1993 that devolved considerable central government power to the three regions in the federation: French-speaking Wallonia in the South, Flemish-speaking Flanders in the North, and Brussels, the capital, where French and Flemish share the same status. The small German minority in Wallonia, which consists of around 70,000 persons, has also been accorded cultural autonomy. Another 1993 amendment granted the three regional assemblies primary responsibility in a number of important policy areas, including housing, education, and the environment, while keeping issues like foreign policy, defense, justice, and monetary policy in the hands of the central state. In 2002, Belgium became the second country in the world after the Netherlands to partially legalize euthanasia.
During parliamentary elections in May 2003, the two main political parties - the Liberals and the Socialists - both gained at the expense of the Greens, which dropped from 20 to 4 seats in the lower house and were forced out of the ruling coalition. The Socialists led with 27 percent of the vote compared with 26 percent for the Liberals. Altogether, the coalition holds 97 of the 150 seats in the lower house.
In mid-June 2004, the Vlaams Blok gained a quarter of the vote during regional and European elections in Flanders, affirming its continuing support in the region. In addition to maintaining its anti-immigrant and law-and-order stance, the party also argues that the wealthier Flanders is bolstering the burden of the less-well-off French-speaking Wallonia in the South. The highest court in the country ruled that the Vlaams Blok had breached anti-racism legislation. The ruling, which prevents the party from accessing state funding and bans it from public media, forced it to re-form under a new name and platform.
The year was also marked by an increase in racial tensions. An Antwerp Senator went into hiding after she had received death threats for her comments about Muslims. The Senator, who is of Moroccan descent, was targeted after suggesting that prominent Muslims in the country erred in not condemning the murder of the controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was killed in the Netherlands by an alleged Islamic extremist in November.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the country's strong opposition to the U.S.-U.K. - led war in Iraq is the primary reason why Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt failed to win in his bid to be the next president of the European Commission. His candidacy was strongly opposed by Britain, Italy, and other supporters of the war.
In a well-publicized case, Marc Dutroux, the convicted pedophile and child killer, was sentenced to life in prison in June for kidnapping, raping, and killing young girls in the mid-1990s.
Belgians can change their government democratically. In February, parliament granted non-EU immigrants who have been living in the country for at least five years the right to vote in local elections. More than 91 percent of all registered voters turned out at the polls during the last elections in 2003. Voting, however, is compulsory for those eligible. The party system is highly fragmented, with the two leading parties each gaining little more than 20 percent of the vote. In addition, political parties are generally organized along ethno-regional lines, with separate organizations in Flanders and Wallonia, a factor that makes for difficult coalitions.
Belgium was ranked 17 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government. The parliament adopted a draft law in March that guarantees the protection of journalistic sources, except when issues dealing with state security, the royal family, or spying are involved. In addition, newspapers have gone through increasing concentration in ownership since the 1960s as corporations have steadily been buying up papers. As a result, today a handful of corporations run most of the country's newspapers. The government does not limit access to the Internet.
Freedom of religion is protected in Belgium, where the state grants subsidies to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim institutions. About half of the population identifies itself with the Roman Catholic religion. A number of minority religions have complained of discrimination by the government, which has been criticized for its characterization of some non-Catholic religious groups as "sects." The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of association is guaranteed by law, except for membership in groups that practice discrimination "overtly and repeatedly." Freedom of assembly is also respected. A gentleman's agreement between workers and employers was reached in 2002 that bolstered the right to strike. Up to that point, employers were able to use the courts to ban strikes. About 63 percent of the Belgian work force is unionized. Employers found guilty of firing workers because of union activities are required to reinstate the worker or pay an indemnity. According to the International Commission for Free Trade Unions, the fines are probably too low to act as a deterrent, as Belgian employers prefer to pay the fines rather than reinstate dismissed employees active in union affairs.
The judiciary is independent in Belgium, and the rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. The United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a report in July that expressed concerns about a number of human rights abuses, including acts of abuse and racial discrimination committed by the police forces in the country. The report also expressed concerns about the treatment of rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants awaiting deportation who, after being released from detention centers for aliens, were often placed in unsanitary conditions in the transit zone of Brussels national airport, sometimes for several months at a time.
There are specific anti-racism laws in the country that prohibit and penalize the incitement of discrimination, hate, or violence based on race, ethnicity, or nationality.
Equality of opportunity for foreigners is undermined by a relatively high degree of racial and ethnic intolerance in society. Despite recent court rulings against it, the xenophobic Vlaams Blok party continues to maintain considerable support in Flanders, the region where it is based.
The country passed a law in 1994 that stipulates that two-thirds of each party's candidates must be of a different sex. Women won more than 35 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament during elections in 2003, a 10 percent increase since prior elections in 1999. The government actively promotes equality for women. In 2003, the government created the Institute for the Equality of Men and Women. The Institute, which was formerly the Ministry of Labor's Division of Equal Opportunity, is empowered to initiate sex-discrimination lawsuits.