By Tristan Arlaud / GICJ

On Wednesday, May 05, 2021, Belgium participated in its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) during the 38th session of the UPR mechanism.

The review was conducted at the Huma Rights Council and virtually presided by Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the 15th cycle since January 15, 2021. The interactive dialogue structured by the president herself was between Ms. Sophie Wilmès, currently serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Federal Cultural Institutions, and all the delegation of multiple countries.

Based on the summary of Pre-UPR submissions and the outcomes of Belgium’s Second Cycle of 2016, a wide range of topics was on the agenda. Despite all the different matters brought to Belgium's attention and the country's progress over the last five years, some recurrent issues came to the Council's attention requiring significant improvements for the next cycle.  

To start, Ms. Wilmès presented the national report highlighting Belgium’s punctuality in the UPR process and the country’s continuous combat in protecting human rights nationwide and internationally. In response to the previous recommendations and various questions submitted in advance by other delegations, the Minister of Foreign Affairs brought up that the country has ratified the Istanbul Convention 2011 and has adopted laws at the national level to reduce gender-based violence. Moreover, she elaborated on establishing a Federal Institution for the protection of human rights in 2019. The different measures are taken to reduce prison overcrowding, the human rights of detainees, and the care of prisoners with mental illnesses. Those measures included the arrangement of new facilities and alternate sanctions for minor offenses. She also highlighted police forces violence, gender equality, child poverty, asylum seekers, and migration issues. She also explained the various measures taken, such as more vigorous oversight of the police, the adoption of binding quotas to close the gender pay gap, and the current drawing up of a new plan to reduce child poverty nationwide. Finally, she accentuated the country is always compliant with Article 3 of ECHR regarding the detention of minors. Finally, the creation of an independent body to combat terrorism was presented in line with human rights laws. She then demonstrated all the measures adopted since the pandemic, which were considered reasonable and in line with international conventions in the human rights field.

As a part of an interactive dialogue system, most delegations took speech and brought up some recurrent topics to Belgium's attention. Regarding international treaties, many representatives shared their concerns regarding the fact that the country had not yet ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Moreover, the nation had not yet signed and ratified the Intentional Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Many Middle Eastern and North African delegations also expressed their concerns on the rise of islamophobia and the use of ethnic profiling by many authorities. Recommendations to adopt a Comprehensive Action Plan to tackle racism were given. On an additional note, most states also expressed their worries about the continuous violations of human rights for detainees in prison due to prison overcrowding. Although Ms. Wilmès explained the country's measures to resolve the issue, delegations believe that much more work is necessary.

Finally, the Minister responded and explained the various reasons why the government did not yet resolve some matters of contention or the legal tools currently being drawn to protect the human rights of all those involved. Regarding the OPCAT and the ICPMWMM, she explained that those legislations were on their way to ratification. Still, more time is needed to adapt the national legal system and set prevention mechanisms. It is crucial to note that Belgium is a Federation state, and therefore the cooperation between all the regions is always necessary before the enactment of new laws. Further, the country is also working hard on creating a National Human Rights Institution, and this inter-federal cooperation is what makes the process longer.

Regarding police violence, racism and islamophobia, she explained that the country had reinforced its oversight mechanism. The legal system prohibits all forms of racism, whether through its forces and among individuals. About prison overcrowding, she reiterated that the new facilities were being built, and the country will continue its effort to resolve the matter over the coming years. To conclude, she shared the government's concern on gender-based violence and its rise due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The nation has implemented the Istanbul Convention within its national system properly, and some positive results are expected from the campaign against domestic violence by the year 2022.

In light of this UPR, Geneva International Centre for Justice welcomes Belgium's strong consideration and acceptance recommendation from the 2016 review. However, GICJ shares its concerns regarding the rise of racism and gender-based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. The difficulty in enacting new laws and legal mechanisms is comprehensive in a federation state, but this should not be a burden in setting up National Human Rights Institution. An independent body to monitor human rights nationwide is crucial for protecting all individuals.

GICJ hopes for further progress on the human rights situation in Belgium and to see the practical implementation of the UN and stakeholders' recommendations in the interim years before the next session.

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