Belgian parliament finally approves creation of human rights institute
Saturday, 13 April 2019
The foreign affairs committee of the federal parliament this week voted in favour of the creation of a national centre for human rights – 26 years after the idea was first proposed. The idea goes back to 1993, and the world conference on human rights held in Vienna. As a result of that conference, 23 of the current 28 member states of the EU have created such a centre. Belgium is now on the way to catching up.
The remit of the centre is to bring the attention of the state to human rights questions which are not handled by existing organisations. In Belgium, that means one of 15 or so organisations dealing with the issue. Among them government-funded Unia, formerly know as the centre for equal opportunities and the fight against racism, whose remit is self-explanatory.
However according to Olivier Deschutter of the UN committee on economic social and cultural affairs, quoted in Le Soir, some areas of human rights remain unsupervised in Belgium. “The freedom of association, or the freedom of expression, for example, have no watchdog,” he said. “Economic and social rights, like the right to health care, housing, food or a job, are insufficiently assured.”
The new institute would occupy a new level above the various existing organisations, scrutinising the government’s adherence to human rights laws, and providing a one-stop shop for international organisations like the UN to enter into dialogue with Belgium.
Explaining the long and winding road from Vienna in 1993 to this week’s go-ahead, De Schutter pointed to the willingness expressed by successive governments to create a national centre, faced with the typically Belgian problem of reaching an agreement with regional governments and the language communities.
As if to demonstrate that problem, the vote in the foreign affairs committee was immediately criticised by Flemish nationalist party N-VA, which described the new centre as parliament offering itself an “election gift that demonstrates a useless, pointless and expensive rush-job”. Rita Bellens of N-VA was the only member to vote against the proposal. Like several federal governments before it, the Michel government, which until November included the N-VA, had included the centre in its governing accord – a rush job that dates back, this time alone, to 2014.