Freedom in the World
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In October 2006, the far-right Vlaams Belang Party garnered its best support yet after it captured 20 percent of the vote in local elections in the northern region of Flanders. In February, a Belgian court found three men guilty of belonging to an Islamic group with links to terrorist attacks in Madrid and Morocco. Hundreds of asylum seekers protested in Brussels against a new draft law that makes it more difficult for immigrants to get working papers.
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 Union (EU) and still hosts the central administration of the organization 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 foreign policy, defense, justice, and monetary policy in the hands of the central state. The Flemings, living in the more economically dynamic region, generally favor greater decentralization of state power to the country’s regions.
During parliamentary elections in May 2003, the two main political party blocks—the Liberals (the Flemish Liberal Democrats, or VLD, and the Reform Movement, or MR) and the Socialists (the Socialist Party, or PS, and the Socialist Party Alternative, or SPA)—both gained at the expense of the Greens , which dropped from 20 to 4 seats in the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) and were forced out of the ruling coalition. The Socialists led slightly 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.
During local elections in October 2006, the far-right Vlaams Belang Party (the former Vlaams Blok) enjoyed its best showing yet, gaining 20 percent of the vote in the northern region of Flanders. The party did, however, drop to second place in its stronghold, the city of Antwerp. In 2005, a language dispute flared over the division of an electoral district that includes suburban Flanders and parts of Brussels; the conflict concerns how the district should be divided between the country’s Flemish- and French-speaking political parties.
In May 2006, a gunman with far-right sympathies opened fired in the center of Antwerp killing a Malian nanny and the two-year-old girl in her care. The killings raised concerns across the country about growing intolerance in Belgium and the rising support for the Vlaams Belang.
Belgium is seeking the extradition from Senegal of Chad’s former dictator, Hissene Habre, after a Belgian judge in 2005 issued an international arrest warrant charging Habre with atrocities committed during his eight years of rule, 1982–1990. The indictment was originally issued under Belgium’s previous “universal jurisdiction” law, which allowed the prosecution of suspects of severe human rights abuses, no matter where the offenses were committed. In 2003, the law was repealed under international pressure and amended so that those charged had to be living in Belgium. However, the Habre case was allowed to continue because the investigation was already underway. In May 2006, the United Nations gave Senegal 90 days to put Habre on trial or send him to Belgium to face the charges there.
In February 2006, a Belgian court found three men guilty of belonging to an Islamic group with links to the terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004 and in Morocco in 2003. The trial, which began in November 2005, was the first to cover the country’s new antiterrorism laws, which stipulate a maximum of 5 years for belonging to a terrorist organization and 10 years for playing a coordinating role in terrorist attacks. In total, 13 men, all Moroccans or Belgians of Moroccan descent, went on trial. Eight of the defendants were found guilty of lesser charges and two were acquitted.
A bogus report on the country’s public television station, RTBF, reported that the Dutch-speaking Flemish region had declared independence from the country and that Belgium as a nation ceased to exist. The spoof, which caused panicked calls to the station, was called irresponsible and in poor taste by the prime minister’s office.
Belgium is an electoral democracy. In February 2004, 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 parliamentary elections, in 2003. Voting, however, is compulsory for those eligible.
Parliament consists of two houses: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The 150 members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected directly by proportional representation. In the Senate, there are 71 seats, 40 of which are elected directly by popular vote and 31 indirectly. In both houses, members serve four-year terms. The prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party or leading coalition, is appointed by the monarch and approved by Parliament. The current prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has been in office since 1999.
The party system is highly fragmented, with the leading party, the VLD, receiving only a little more than 15 percent of the vote in the 2003 election. 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.
In November 2004, Belgian courts banned the xenophobic Vlaams Blok Party for violating the country’s antiracism laws. The party changed its name to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interests) and removed some of the most overt racist elements in its platform, such as its call for the mandatory expulsion of all Muslim immigrants. However, the party maintains its anti-immigrant and anticrime policies, as well as its commitment to an independent Flanders.
Belgium was ranked 20 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and the press are guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government. The Belgian Chamber of Deputies voted unanimously in March 2005 to approve a law on the protection of journalists’ sources in Belgium. The vote came after police raids on the home and office of a Brussels reporter in 2004, which shocked the community of international journalists. The new law protects journalists from home searches and seizures, and gives them the right to silence if called as a witness. Journalists can only be forced to reveal sources to “prevent crimes that represent a serious attack on the physical integrity of one or several third parties.” Newspapers have gone through increased concentration of ownership since the 1960s, as corporations have steadily been buying papers. As a result, a handful of corporations currently 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. About 63 percent of the Belgian workforce is unionized. A gentleman’s agreement between workers and employers, reached in 2002, bolstered the right to strike. Up to that point, employers were able to use the courts to ban strikes. Employers found guilty of firing workers because of union activities are required to reinstate the worker or pay an indemnity. According to the International Confederation of 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, and the rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. In July 2004, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a report 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.
Seventeen people—mainly soldiers and others with far-right and xenophobic sympathies—were held, in September 2006, on suspicion of trying to destabilize the country through acts of terrorism. The arrests were made during a raid on the barracks and homes of the suspected members that led to a seizure of homemade bombs.
Specific antiracism laws prohibit and penalize the incitement of discrimination, acts of hatred, or violence based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. Despite these protections, equality of opportunity for foreigners is undermined by a relatively high degree of racial and ethnic intolerance in society. Police are also empowered to reprimand or even imprison women found dressed in the burqa (full-body covering) on the streets.
In March 2006, hundreds of asylum seekers protested in Brussels against a new draft law that makes it more difficult for immigrants to get working papers. The protesters complained that the draft law does not clarify how those without papers can remedy their situation.
In March 2006, the Belgian Parliament voted in favor of granting homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual couples in adopting children.
The law provides for the free movement of citizens at home and abroad, and the government does not interfere with these rights.
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. In 1994, the country passed a law stipulating that two-thirds of each party’s candidates must be of a different gender. Women won more than 35 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament (Chamber of Deputies) during elections in 2003, a 10 percent increase since prior elections in 1999.
Belgium is a destination and transit point for trafficked persons. However, according to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report for 2006, the country made considerable efforts to prosecute traffickers, provide protection to victims, and prevent trafficking. In 2005, the country prosecuted its first sex tourist, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The accused, a Belgian national, had abused more than 200 children in Thailand over a 20-year period.