A bill proposed by the Flemish and Francophone greens (Groen and Ecolo) aims to set general rules for declassifying secret government documents, they announced in a press release on Friday.
Co-signed by other parties of the current Federal Government, the bill intends to “fill an important gap in the legislation on classification, which has serious repercussions, in particular in regard to the transparency of the decision of our public authorities and within the framework of historical research,” said Federal MP Julie Chanson.
Under current legislation, there are three levels of classification for government documents: confidential, secret, and top secret. Confidential documents may include army plans, commniqués, and economic proposals.
Unlike many other countries, Belgium does not have a system to systematically declassify documents. In the United Kingdom, for example, there is a “20-year rule,” meaning that most documents are released after 20 years of their classified publication.
The Belgian Greens intend to put in place a similar system. Currently, however, declassification is done on a case-to-case basis.
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A prior proposal, tabled by Federal Groen MP Stefaan Van Hecke in 2018, demanded the automatic declassification of confidential documents after 20 years, secret ones after 30 years, and top secret ones after 50 years.
These plans, despite being widely practised in other countries, received stiff opposition from the Belgian intelligence services, who warned that the proposals would be dangerous.
“In 2020, during hearings, the intelligence services had warned of the danger of automatic declassification, even after a long period. But the need for a general regulation has however been the subject of a consensus within the various services, state archives, historians, journalists…,” said Federal Ecolo MP Julie Chanson.
Following the 2019 elections, with the inclusion of the Greens in the ruling coalition, the bill was included in the Government’s plans and has now been tabled. The bill will demand the same declassification periods demanded in 2018.
The plans will allow for the automatic declassification of documents, however, the relevant ministries will still need to personally approve the declassification of certain sensitive information. After 100 years, the classified statement of a document will automatically expire.