The Covid-19 crisis saw the fundamental rights of the Belgian population regularly violated, with the delayed implementation of the Pandemic Act and limited parliamentary debate, the Human Rights League NGO has concluded.
With the first Covid-19 lockdown declared in Belgium three years ago, the balance between freedom and security was tipped as authorities exercised unusual powers and the population faced severe curbs on civil liberties.
"There were a lot of human rights violations at certain periods," Kati Verstrepen, president of the Human Rights League, said on VRT's television programme 'De Zevende Dag' on Sunday. "We were constantly in dilemma, and often to an extreme degree."
She acknowledged that people needed to be protected from the virus and measures were needed for that, "but those measures violated a whole range of fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of movement, the right to association, education, among others. The balance was lost."
Verstrepen stresses that Belgium took too long to address the situation in an effective way that accounted for the competing demands and duties: "At first, we also only had a government in current affairs (the Wilmès government remained in power while the country attempted to form a new Federal Government) and we did not have a Pandemic Act, only an emergency law."
"It was logical that measures were being enforced through ministerial decrees in the beginning, but that continued for far too long." The human rights specialist argues that a parliamentary debate should have been held far sooner as this could have increased general support for measures.
The fact that parliament (and with it, democratic scrutiny) was sidelined was problematic on several counts – most importantly, the fact that people had no idea of the debate that preceded certain measures. "There was also very chaotic communication – think of the infamous PowerPoint presentation by then-PM Wilmès; something no one will forget."
"People received conflicting messages: one minister said this, another said that. People no longer know why some things are allowed and not others. A parliamentary debate would also have made enforcement much easier afterwards."
Former Flemish Health Minister Wouter Beke admitted that some measures were too harsh. Asked what he would do differently now, he immediately referred to the limit on the number of people at a funeral service. "You can only say goodbye once so if you ask me, that measure was far too harsh."
Almost a year after the first lockdown, the Pandemic Act finally came into being in February 2021. For Beke, this will certainly be an improvement for possible future scenarios. Yet the minister argued that the initial lack of a Pandemic Act did not disclude debate in parliament.
"I remember a debate to give priority vaccinations to people with underlying conditions. There was also a lot of criticism of that plan – which mainly had to do with privacy – but we just wanted to protect people and give them back their freedom faster."
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On the same television programme, Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said that an independent evaluation of Belgium's Covid-19 policy will be made by the OECD international think tank.
"I expect a very critical study on everything that had to do with Covid-19," he said, adding that the results will preferably be published before the elections in May 2024. "Let the criticism come, I want us to be ready for next crises."