Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1985

Belgium is a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional
monarchy. Its Council of Ministers (Cabinet), responsible for
governmental decisions, is led by the Prime Minister and holds
office as long as it retains the confidence of the Parliament.
Direct popular elections for Parliamentary seats (excluding 76
of the 182 Senate seats apportioned by other means) are held
at least every 4 years under a system of universal suffrage,
obligatory voting, and proportional representation.
Domestic security in Belgium is the responsibility of the
National Paramilitary Gendarmerie, the judicial police, and a
host of municipal police forces. The armed forces play no
role in domestic law enforcement.
Beginning in October 1984, Belgium found itself the target of
terrorist attacks from a variety of sources, with groups
claiming to be Belgian taking responsibility. Some 20
terrorist actions have occurred since then, claiming 2 lives
and causing substantial property damage. Terrorism on their
own soil is an unaccustomed phenomenon for Belgians. Added to
this was the trauma caused when 38 football fans were crushed
in the wake of nonpolitical disturbances at a Brussels
football stadium last May. These events have increasingly led
Belgians to question their personal security and the
effectiveness of the forces that are supposed to insure it.
Respect for human rights in Belgium is guaranteed in the
Constitution and laws and was observed in practice throughout
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including
Freedom from.:
a. Political Killing
Neither the Belgian authorities nor officially sanctioned
groups engage in killings for political motives. Two firemen
died in May 1985 after a car-bomb exploded in front of the
headquarters of the Belgian Employers Federation. The attack
was claimed by the Communist Combat Cells (CCC), a group of
apparently Belgian membership that first ceime to public
awareness with the bombing of the offices of an American
multinational corporation in October 1984. Although the CCC
claimed the deaths were accidental — the police had failed to
alert the firemen that the vehicle contained a bomb — terrorist
attacks have become an anxious topic for Belgians and their
Government .
The CCC and as many as four other groups state that they have
targeted NATO and police installations, companies doing
business with the military, and other political groups or
private businesses for attack. After bombing a Brussels gas
company on October 8, 1985, the CCC urged voters to void their
ballots in the parliamentary elections to follow 5 days
later. Security forces, principally the Gendarmerie, have
captured evidence that seems to link French terrorists with
local groups.
Abductions, secret arrests, or clandestine detentions by
official or quasi-official security forces contravene Belgian
law and are unknown in practice.
c. Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or
The Penal Code's prohibition on the deliberate mistreatment or
injury of another is applicable to the actions of both
officials and private individuals. Although crowded and aging
prisons are an issue in Belgium, torture and other inhuman
punishment are unknown in practice. There are no differences
in the conditions of confinement based on race, sex, religion,
or social class.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is guaranteed
by law and respected in practice. Arrested persons must be
brought before a judge within 24 hours or released. Belgian
law provides for pretrial confinement only under special
circumstances: when a person is apprehended in the commission
of a criminal act; when there is a risk that the suspect will
prove a danger to the community; when there is a risk that he
will flee the jurisdiction; and when the case involves one of
a number of serious offenses specified by law. The
justification for such confinement is subject to periodic
review by a panel of judges.
In practice, there is growing concern among local human rights
groups and parliamentarians that pretrial detention is
sometimes abused. Bail exists in principle under Belgian law
but in practice is rarely granted. There is no limit on how
long an accused may be held prior to coming to trial. The
Belgian Attorney General, in a speech marking the beginning of
the 1984-85 session of the Supreme Court, said that in
numerous cases judges fail to limit pretrial detention to
those cases that truly meet the standards of public safety and
the likelihood of flight. He also warned judges that pretrial
detention should not be used to punish an accused before trial.
Forced labor is legally prohibited and is unknown in practice.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
A fair public trial, including the right to counsel, is
guaranteed by law and honored in practice. A suspect is
charged, if the evidence so warrants, when the preliminary
judicial investigatory phase is completed. Charges are
clearly and formally stated. No one is imprisoned because of
his political beliefs.
Belgium was the subject of a 1984 decision by the European
Court of Human Rights which condemned legal proceedings
against a man whose prosecutor when he was first arrested
later became one of his judges. In 1985, the European
Commission on Human Rights accepted a similar case for review
involving the independence of the judiciary and prosecution.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or
Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy by the State
is guaranteed by law and respected in practice. Participation
in the political process and enjoyment of civil and personal
liberties are not inhibited. The Constitution specifically
guarantees the inviolability of the home, except in cases
specifically regulated by law. The law forbids searches of
private homes at night, except in special circumstances.
Warrants issued by a judge are required unless the inhabitants
of the domicile agree to the search. The Penal Code provides
penalties for all violations of the home by officials as well
as by private persons. Monitoring of telephones and
interference with mail are strictly prohibited.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Rights, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
These freedoms are guaranteed by law and respected in
practice. Varying political, religious, philosophical, and
artistic views are permitted free public expression, and there
is no political censorship of the media. There are, however,
prohibitions on publications and productions held to undermine
"public order" (e.g., extreme pornography and incitement to
violence). There are laws against libel, provisions for a
citizen's right of reply to media criticism, and restrictions
on criticism of government policies by civil servants.
Belgium has state-owned radio and television programs which
are supervised by boards of directors representing the main
currents of opinion. The Government has a representative on
the boards but no control or veto power. "Free" (not
state-owned) radio stations operate openly, although their
legal status is ambiguous. Most urban homes also have access
to foreign television from neighboring countries via cable.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Subject to regulations to preserve public order, political,
civic, religious, artistic, social, and special interest
groups are permitted free public assembly. Groups protesting
government policies or actions and labor unions are free from
harassment and persecution, although permits are required for
open-air assemblies.
The right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively is
recognized and exercised freely. Government austerity
measures sometimes limit or alter the results of collective
bargaining. This was the basis of a 1983 complaint to the
International Labor Organization by one of Belgium's two major
labor confederations. The degree of union organization is one
of the highest in the world — approximately 70 percent of the
work force. Labor unions are strong and independent of the
government but have important informal links with and
influence on many of the major political parties. The unions
do not allow their leaders to hold political office.
c. Freedom of Religion
Belgivim has a long tradition of religious tolerance. The
Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions are accorded
"recognized" status in law, which includes a government
subsidy. "Nonrecognized" religions enjoy full freedom to
practice and are not subject to harassment or persecution.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign
Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Belgian citizens enjoy freedom of travel within the country
and internationally, including the right of voluntary
repatriation. A law took effect in May 1985 that gives six
municipalities in the greater Brussels region the right to
refuse to register new foreigners — defined as citizens of
non-European Economic Community countries — as residents. Such
registration is required of all persons residing in Belgium,
with some exceptions. To date all six municipalities have
taken advantage of the new law, whose effect is to limit the
freedom of foreigners to decide where in Belgium they may
reside. On the other hand, anyone arriving in Belgium may
claim political asylum, and will be allowed to stay in Belgium
long enough to pursue that claim. Belgium automatically
grants the right of political asylum to those foreign
nationals who are recommended by the local office of the U.N.
High Commission for Refugees.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
The last elections were held on October 13, 1985 when Prime
Minister Martens' center-right coalition emerged with an
enhanced majority. Participation in the political system is
open to all citizens. Suffrage is universal for all adults
(18 and over), secret, and compulsory. Unweighted voting (one
person/one vote) has been in effect since 1919 for men and
since 1949 for women. There are 13 parties currently
represented in the Parliament. Opposition parties are free,
under law and in practice, to operate without constraints or
The existence of Dutch- and French-speaking regions poses
significant problems for the Belgian State. All major
institutions, including political parties, are divided along
linguistic lines. There are special provisions for Dutch-,
French-, and German-speaking councils at the community level.
Regional and linguistic needs are taken into account in
national decisions.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
of Human Rights
The Belgian Government has been active in the United Nations
and other international forums concerned with human rights and
has promoted independent investigation of alleged human rights
violations. No requests have been made for outside
investigation of the human rights situation in Belgium. There
are several active independent human rights groups in Belgium,
and they consider the Government open to discussion of any
human rights question.
Amnesty International did not mention Belgium in its 1985
Report. Freedom House rated Belgium "free."
Belgium's population in 1985 was 9,885,000 and was growing at
the rate of only one-tenth of one percent annually. Per
capita gross national product was $9,150 in 1983. In 1985
Belgium's economy continued to suffer from slow growth and
high unemployment, the latter at slightly less than 14
percent. According to the World Bank, governmental policies
to increase employment and an extensive system of unemployment
compensation and other social benefits have helped to minimize
individual financial hardship.
Food, shelter, health care, and education are available to all
inhabitants regardless of race, religion, sex, ethnic
background, or political opinion. The literacy rate is 98
percent. In 1985 life expectancy was 73.6 years, with the
infant mortality rate 10 per 1,000 live births. In 1982,
nearly 99 percent of the children eligible for primary
education were enrolled. School attendance is mandatory until
age 18 for both sexes.
The minimum age for employment of children is 16, and children
can work and study part time from age 16 to 18. Belgian
working hours, mandated by law and collective agreement, are
the shortest in Europe, averaging 37 hours a week. There are
generous legal provisions for minimum wages (currently almost
$600 a month for full-time work for those over 21 years of
age, with a slightly lower youth minimum), vacations, and
unemployment benefits. Adequate health and safety legislation
exists, supplemented by collective bargaining agreements, and
health and safety committees are mandated by law at
enterprises with more than 50 employees.
Belgium is active in the area of women's rights. The
Consultative Commission for the Condition of Women, attached
to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, advises the Government on
international women's issues. Within the country there are
several other commissions on women's rights which deal with
oversight of women's education and working conditions. There
are numerous women members of the Senate and Chamber of
Representatives, and there are two women in Cabinet posts.
Belgium is a culturally active, pluralistic society in which
individual differences in general are respected, and
linguistic rights in particular are protected. Some 57
percent of Belgians are native Dutch speakers living primarily
in the northern provinces that constitute Flanders, 42 percent
are French speakers living in the capital, Brussels, and the
southern provinces called Wal Ionia, and the rest are German
speakers living along the eastern border. These language
differences have been the subject of hundreds of laws over the
last century, leading to a fairly rigid structure designed to
protect each language group from cultural, economic, or
political dominance by the others.
Nearly 1 out of every 10 persons living in Belgium is
foreign-born. Some 25 percent of the residents of Brussels
are foreigners, resulting from a concentration of primarily
north African immigrants who have a profound effect on the
social and economic mix. The immigrant population tends to be
poorer, less skilled, and less educated than the average, and
increasingly the focus of public debate.