Police violence, foreign fighters and the NRHI at the center of the discussion with Belgium

Human Rights Committee - 127th session - October/November 2019

Olivier de Schutter, member of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, gets peppersprayed by a police officer on 12 October 2019 in Brussels, during a demonstration of Extinction Rebellion. Photo credit: lesoir.be

On 15 and 16 October 2019, Belgium was questioned by the UN Human Rights Committee on the implementation of the ICCPR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The webcast is available here and here.

Several topical themes were discussed during the review: detention conditions, treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, sexual violence, the wage gap between women and men, the national human rights institution (NHRI) Unia, religious symbols, foreign fighters and their families in Syria and Iraq, the rights of intersex persons and police violence. Some of these issues are discussed below.

"Regarding so-called "foreign fighters", Belgian nationals in Syria and Iraq, what is being done? We understand that no consular assistance is given to them. Is this the case? How are you dealing with the repatriation of women and children from these areas? "

- Yuval Shany, vice-Chair of the Human Rights Committee

Several concerns regarding migrants and asylum seekers

In addition to recurring criticism of the structural problems in Belgian detention centers, linked to overcrowding and regular strikes, the Committee was particularly concerned for the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. In addition to police violence during deportations and difficult procedures to appoint pro bono lawyers, it remains particularly worrying that a structural vision and solution is not forthcoming. A question about complaints of excessive use of force by the police in Maximilian park, was not answered. The question whether the Belgian state has a plan to tackle this problem in the long term also remained unanswered. In addition, both NGOs and the Committee expressed concern that Belgium is once again detaining children in closed centers simply because of their residence status. Despite recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Commissioner for Human Rights from the Council of Europe and from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Belgium maintains its position.

Foreign fighters and their family members: no plan

The (non-) approach of the so-called foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq also raised questions from the Committee. Belgium's position until now was to allow them to go through a fair trial in an independent court in the countries where the crimes took place, without the death penalty being pronounced. However, this is not guaranteed since the death penalty is still legal in both Syria and Iraq. Moreover, after eight days and more than eight escapes of Belgians from Kurdish prisons, the situation becomes very pressing, but Belgium was unable to communicate an updated position with the Committee.

With regard to the wives and children of the fighters, Belgium said the following: children up to 10 years old can be repatriated if they can prove a relationship of parenthood with a Belgian (and thus also obtain Belgian nationality). Children between 10 and 18 years old, according to the delegation, could have participated in ISIS operations, and therefore a case-by-case evaluation is carried out for them. The Committee, together with various psychologists and NGOs, is concerned about the long duration of the process of repatriation and evaluation.

Worrying developments regarding the National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) Unia

Another topical issue that the Belgian delegation could not clarify, was the NHRI Unia. The Committee had questions about the recent announcement by the Flemish government to "withdraw from Unia" and about the current mandate. The ICCPR requires every state to establish an independent human rights institution that must meet certain conditions. Unia's mandate is not broad enough to be considered as a fully-fledged NHRI. For example, Unia is not competent for situations where people are discriminated on the basis of their language - a frequent occurrence in a country like Belgium with different language communities. It is questionable whether a Flemish center that will replace Unia, will meet all the conditions. Moreover, the announced withdrawal which will result in significant budget cuts, is causing considerable concern for Unia.

Police violence against protesters

Finally, Belgium received several questions about police violence that took place in Brussels on 12 October. During a protest action of Extinction Rebellion, the police allegedly used excessive force against peaceful activists. Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and a current member of the UN Committee on economic, social and cultural rights, also fell victim to pepper spray. More than 300 activists were arrested. In response, the Belgian state emphasized that officers on duty must be identifiable at all times, and that citizens have the right to film police actions. There is no ban on filming police actions: officers cannot check the identity of people filming, or confiscate their phone. However, it was regrettable that the Belgian delegation superficially replied by citing existing legislation, but did not delve deeper into the concrete events of 12 October.

 

This article was originally written in Dutch and published in De Standaard. Read the Dutch version here

Recommendations

Le Comité a adopté ses Observations finales parmi lesquelles figurent plusieurs recommandations. Les recommandations suivantes sont prioritaires et doivent faire l’objet d’un rapport de suivi des autorités dans un délai de deux ans, à savoir le 8 novembre 2021.

Réfugiés, demandeurs d’asile et non-refoulement

L’État partie devrait:

a) Interdire la détention des migrants, surtout des familles, femmes enceintes et enfants, et développer des alternatives à la détention en conformité avec ses obligations découlant du Pacte et les principes de l’intérêt supérieur de l’enfant et de l’unité familiale ;

b) Adopter une législation sur l’apatridie régissant l’octroi de la nationalité ou de permis de séjour aux personnes reconnues apatrides dans l’État partie.

Mesures antiterroristes

L’État partie devrait:

a) Faciliter le rapatriement de tous les enfants nés de ressortissants belges qui se trouvent dans les zones de conflit, en respectant le principe de l’intérêt supérieur de l’enfant, et assurer leur accès aux soins et services de réinsertion lors du rapatriement ;

b) Faire les efforts nécessaires pour garantir que les ressortissants soupçonnés d’actes de terrorisme ou crimes de guerre soient poursuivis en justice, conformément aux droits contenus dans le Pacte.

Institution nationale des droits de l’homme

L’État partie devrait accélérer la mise en place de l’Institut fédéral pour la protection et la promotion des droits humains, en conformité avec les Principes de Paris, en lui donnant un mandat global et tous les moyens nécessaires afin d’accomplir pleinement son mandat, y compris la possibilité de recevoir des plaintes. L’État partie devrait, en outre, encourager la négociation d’accords de coopération entre l’Autorité fédérale et les entités fédérées afin d’accroître la collaboration entre l’Institut fédéral et les institutions sectorielles pour assurer une protection efficace en conformité avec ses obligations découlant du Pacte.

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