Belgium and human rights

1. In general

Human rights are the fundamental rights and freedoms every human being is entitled to, regardless of who he/she is and where he/she lives. These essential rights are minimum standards, they are an integral part of every person as a human being. Human rights have been for the first time comprehensively embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. Since its adoption, this Declaration has become a reference of great moral value. Along with the United Nations, various regional and national institutions are active in the area of human rights, e.g. the Council of Europe. In cooperation with the United Nations, these organisations have drawn up binding and more specific treaties with regard to certain groups of people, thus supporting and enhancing the protection of human rights. In the meantime, most of these treaties have been supplemented by optional protocols specifying the States’ obligations in this matter. Each treaty ratified by a State requires regular reporting on the observance of its obligations to committees of independent experts.

2. At the Belgian level

The responsibility for the respect, the protection and the implementation of human rights primarily rests with the States. The promotion and protection of human rights is a priority for Belgium, both at the national level and in the relations with other countries. It has been expressly laid down as such in the coalition agreement of the current government. Some priority themes in the area of human rights as highlighted by Belgium are: the abolition of the death penalty, the protection of the rights of women, children and defenders of human rights, the fight against all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the fight against impunity. In this context, our embassies in third countries and the department of Foreign Affairs in Brussels regularly arrange meetings with defenders of human rights.

3. At the international level

At the international level, Belgium plays a pioneering role with respect to human rights. For example: in 1996, Belgium was the first country in Western Europe which banned the death penalty from criminal law, whether in peace time or in war time. At the international level, our country is an active member of the “Group of Friends of the Second Optional Protocol”, i.e. the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. Belgium was a founding member of the Council of Europe and from 2009 to 2012 it was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Belgium applied a second time for obtaining a seat during the period 2016-2018 . In 2011, within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a peer review mechanism of the UNHRC, Belgium had to answer questions about its human rights practices. Furthermore, our country made the voluntary commitment to submit in September 2013 an interim report on the observance of the 88 recommendations it has agreed with within the framework of the UPR. As to the UPR of other countries, Belgium will continue participating actively in the UPR working group of the Council during the second round, as well. 

4. At the European level

In an increasingly globalised world, major issues exceed the capacity of the national level to provide an adequate answer. As Belgium is fully aware that the current big challenges extend beyond its fronteers, it opts for investing in international cooperation. In this regard, the European level is the most appropriate to voice the Belgian priorities as well as the human rights dialogue. As a matter of fact, human rights and democratisation objectives have progressively become an essential part of the external EU policy.

At the European level, most instruments to protect human rights originate from the Council of Europe. Apart from its control and monitoring mechanisms, the major achievement of the Council of Europe is the European Treaty on Human Rights (ETHR). From November 2014 to May 2015, Belgium will hold the presidency of the Council of Europe. As one of the founding members, Belgium has ratified most of the treaties drawn up by the Council. The ETHR is specific for its international enforcement mechanism. The European Court of Human Rights, which has its registered office in Strasbourg, has been created on the basis of the aformentioned Treaty and some of its additional Protocols. This international judicial body deals with claims introduced by individuals, groups of people, organisations as well as nations against a member state of the Council of Europe in relation to violations of the European Treaty on Human Rights.

At the level of the European Union, a Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy has been adopted on 25 June 2012. Along with others, our country will provide its support in order to achieve the implementation of not less than 97 actions within the action plan.

Our country indeed has a long history regarding the protection of human rights. But this process never stops, violations of human rights go on and happen every day in many places. It not only is a big responsability but also a moral duty to keep addressing this sensitive human rights issue and to voice it. Belgium therefore will continue its combat to protect and promote these fundamental rights all over the world.

5. Development cooperation

For Belgium, it is crucial for a development approach to use legal tools in order to achieve lasting results in the primary development cooperation sectors, such as health care, education and training, agriculture, food security and basic infrastructure.

Concrete contributions

Belgium supports the Office of the High Commissionner for Human Rights (OHCHR, as a partner organisation of multilateral cooperation. This specialised organisation has the United Nations mandate to protect and promote human rights as well as to prevent breaches, to improve the knowledge and the international standards concerning human rights and to assist in the creation of national and international human rights instruments. In 2012, Belgium granted a contribution of 900,000 euros to the overall working funds of the aforementioned organisation.

Furthermore, Belgium is in various ways actively involved in the promotion and protection of human rights:

  1. Both at the European and the bilateral level, Belgium is engaged in a political dialogue and in actions relating to human rights and to the promotion of human rights in the bilateral cooperation agreements with the partner countries.
  2. It provides a contribution to the overall working funds of UNWOMEN (gender equality and empowerment of women, and UNFPA (sexual and reproductive rights,
  3. It focuses on the rights of women in the programming cyclus of cooperation activities.
  4. It also is particularly concerned with the rights of children within the context of the Belgian development cooperation. In this respect, UNICEF plays a unique part on the world scene and, especially in developing countries, by boosting the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Unicef is the major partner of the Belgian development cooperation in the area of the Rights of the Child. Belgium susbstantially contributes (18,8 million euros in 2012) to the implementation of UNICEF’s strategic plan in the medium term: survival and development of the child, primary education and equal opportunities, HIV/AIDS, protection and defence of the Rights of the Child. The Rights of the Child is an issue Belgian development cooperation is actively involved with in collaboration with its partner countries and with the NGOs, which play a major part in the implementation of the Rights of the Child in the field by means of a wide range of programmes which specifically concentrate on children (street children,…), or have a direct impact on children (access to drinking water).
  5. Subsidization of specific human rights activities in the broad or the narrow sense of the term (such as the support for democratic institutions e.g.). In 2011-2013, Belgium finances  e.g. the Belgian NGOs RCN Justice & Démocratie to improve judicial access in Burundi (‘justice de proximité’) for an amount of 993,699 euros; and VIC (Vlaams Internationaal Centrum) to raise awareness on the Rights of the Child and to promote the re-integration into society of Burundese child soldiers and girls who have been victims of violence (a 224,231 euros subsidy). Furthermore, Belgium finances initiatives promoting human rights from local organisations of the civil society, such as the Burundese organisation ‘Association Radio Sans Frontières (148,447 euros from 2006 to 2012).