Human rights including children rights and civic space


Since the end of the Cold War, some development assistance has been conditional upon the governments of partner countries respecting human rights. More recently, the concept of approaching development based on human rights has proposed strengthening the capacities of, on the one hand, the authorities responsible for monitoring human rights, and on the other, the capacities of those able to enforce them.

The new law on development cooperation sanctions the integration of Belgian development cooperation into a more human rights-based approach.

Indeed, since 2013 "Development co-operation incorporates the priority themes: 1° Human rights (including the rights of the child); 2° decent and sustainable work; 3° strengthening society" (art.11). The new law makes it possible to take account of all types of human rights (civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights and so-called 3rd generation rights), particularly the right to development in all its forms, which paves the way for consideration and action.

Belgian development cooperation has already significantly invested in the four sub-themes of human rights, namely women's rights (equal access to employment, political office, sexual and reproductive rights, etc.) the rights of the child, the right to decent work (social protection, equal pay for men and women, etc.) and the right to justice (provisional detention, access to justice, protection for victims and witnesses, etc.).

Belgian bilateral cooperation is able to encourage mainstreaming and cross-cutting, thus simultaneously reinforcing the sectoral and thematic approaches.

Furthermore, Belgium's dialogue on cooperation policies with partner countries also addresses, among other things, the human rights situation in the countries in question. This policy dialogue is broader and more concerted under the implementation of the Cotonou Agreement (EU/ACP 2000-2020) through its article 8, which makes respect for human rights a condition for aid.

Belgium makes a financial contribution to the general resources of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The OHCHR is the principal office of the United Nations responsible for promoting and protecting all human rights. As such, it guides international efforts in the area of human rights and delivers objective decisions on violations of these rights across the world. It can receive and investigate complaints submitted directly by victims of human rights violations and appeal to governments on victims' behalf.

Both approaches (mainstreaming/cross-cutting and reporting human rights violations) are complementary and can reinforce each other.

Rights of the child

Children and young people make up over half the population in developing countries. Due to their age and dependency, they often find themselves in a vulnerable position which is aggravated by poverty, inequality and discrimination. Consequently, children need particular attention in terms of protection and the defence of their rights (right to healthcare, food, education, protection against violence, registration of births, etc.). In addition, six of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) directly concern the situation of children.

Belgian development cooperation has been involved in protecting and promoting the rights of the child for several years. In the new law, the rights of the child are directly related to human rights and form part of this priority theme.

In operational terms, Belgian development cooperation contributes to the rights of the child via governmental cooperation in partner countries. It also contributes by supporting the many NGO programmes on the ground, whether these are specifically designed for children (street children...), or have a direct impact on children (access to drinking water...).

Multilaterally, UNICEF is the main partner of our cooperation. Through its mandate, it plays a unique global role, especially in developing countries to promote the implementation of the "Convention on the Rights of the Child". It targets its action on the ground in areas that are also important to our cooperation, such as monitoring the child and its development, basic education and gender equality, HIV/AIDS, protection against violence and exploitation and lobbying for the rights of the child.

Finally, protecting children in conflicts is also a priority. The DGD is providing practical support in this area, mainly via humanitarian aid and transition.

More information:

Closing civic space

In a wide diversity of countries across the globe the space available for civil society, activists and citizens has been under attack over the past decade. Several organisations (e.a. UN, OECD, Civicus, …) confirm a recent acceleration of the trend of ‘closing’ or ‘shrinking’ civic space.  Triggered by both state and non-state actors through legal means like repressive laws as well as through para-legal tactics (such as intimidation), the backlash does not only affect progressive Civil Society Organisations involved in human rights promotion. It also targets a growing array of development and humanitarian organisations, community groups, charities, environmental activists, etc.  This challenges internationally recognised rights (i.e. freedom of speech, association and assembly). Given the importance of a healthy civil society for purposes ranging from holding governments accountable to delivering services to communities, these assaults threaten inclusive and sustainable development as proclaimed in the 2030 Agenda.

The aim of this study, asked for by DGD, is to provide an update on how international as well as domestic actors have been responding to the expanding and increasingly sophisticated threats to civic space. It addresses the impact of the systematic assaults on civic space, the responses so far to defend and claim back civic space and the way forward towards a next generation of more proactive, coherent and coordinated approaches to civic space.

This study, finalized in June 2020, was conducted by Mr. Jean Bossuyt and Mr. Martin Ronceray of the think-tank European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), and follows the reflection seminar on “Closing civic space”, organised in December 2019 in the Egmont Palace.


Map published by CIVICUS in their 2019 “State of civil society report”.

A Belgian priority

This study was commissioned by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Directorate-general Development cooperation and Humanitarian aid because the phenomenon of a closing civic space directly impacts the programs of Belgian development cooperation actors. A vibrant and free civil society is essential for the delivery of development services but it is also important as a driver for democratic values and accountable governance.

Furthermore, it is an attack on fundamental rights and values that Belgium has been promoting through it’s development cooperation programmes, such as freedom of speech, association and assembly. The safeguarding of human rights are a political priority for the Belgian Minister for Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo.

The aim is to move forward in developing comprehensive, whole-of-society and rights-based approaches which allow to protect and reclaim space for democratic organisations.

Main findings of the study

The study states that in order to overcome structural shortcomings of current responses to the phenomenon of shrinking civic space, a major jump forward is needed at three levels:

  • Broadening the narrative on what is at stake in defending and reclaiming civic space.
  • Recognising that civic space is ‘changing’ in an unseen way rather than ‘closing’.
  • Going to a higher gear in terms of strategic responses in order to live up to the urgency.

Furthermore, the study suggests five major building blocks of a more structured and coherent response to the civic space challenges post 2020, including:

  • Adopting a clear policy framework creating incentives for bolder action at different levels.
  • Promoting whole-of-government approaches to civic space.
  • Nurturing whole-of-society approaches to civic space.
  • Exploiting the potential of rights-based approaches.
  • Bridging the gaps between development, security and humanitarian action

DGD is further exploring ways how to work on this topic.

You can download and read the full report  here (PDF, 1.96 MB)