Belgium: Counter-Terrorism Policies Must Not Impact Human Rights

Last week, the Belgium Monitoring Committee on counterterrorism policies (T Committee) released its annual report before the Senate, highlighting the fact that the fight against terrorism must not affect human rights.

The T Committee brings together NGOs, lawyers and academics that are concerned about how counter-terrorism policies affect human rights and basic freedoms.

Counter-terrorism legislation tightens in response to attacks

Belgian legislation has been tightened over the years, and even more so recently after France and Belgium were hit by terrorist attacks. Laws have been strengthened with the declared purpose of fighting terrorism. This fight is undoubtedly essential, but it cannot be waged at the expense of respect for basic rights. As there is no national human rights institution responsible for monitoring how such policies impact human rights, the T Committee has made it its task to assess whether Belgium complies with its human rights obligations.

Terrorism means, above all, the denial of these freedoms and basic rights. Imposing political views or religious beliefs through violent means against innocent people, amounts to denying the very foundations of any state ruled by law. Therefore, fighting against terrorism also means that we must protect and assert basic freedoms. Human rights not only offer a framework for an appropriate, efficient and fair response to terrorism, but also ensure respect for our basic rights and freedoms.

Law enforcement given unprecedented powers as judicial oversight fades

In spite of this, basic rights in Belgium have been repeatedly questioned in the name of national security. And it is questionable whether a response to terrorism that is almost solely based on repression is legitimate. One can also ask whether this model is really more efficient. The problem has turned out to be more complex, and policing measures alone will not resolve them. Rather, escalating security measures, which have now been declared a political priority, must be seen as an admission of democratic failure.

Under the guise of combating terrorism, the means and powers given to public prosecutors, police authorities and intelligence agencies are expanding at an unprecedented rate, and sometimes without judicial involvement, which threatens the democratic balance that should prevail when repressive actions are taken. This is why independent and impartial judges, as guarantors of basic freedoms, play a vital role.

Controversial measures come thick and fast, but so does resistance from politicians and judges

The measures that have been adopted also violate various basic rights that concern us all, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to privacy.

In its report, the T Committee examines a series of anti-terrorism measures and policies that have been adopted in recent years. It also analyses the prevention mechanisms in the fight against terrorism, brings to light and examines the rights of foreigners in this context, and looks at the detention conditions and treatment of detainees who have been radicalized. Lastly, it addresses some international aspects of the fight against terrorism, such as how to protect Belgian citizens who are detained in detention camps in northern Syria, and examines this particular situation in the light of international law.

In short, throughout its report, the T Committee notes that we are witnessing an intensive development of controversial measures and regulations, which is accompanied by an equally intensive political and judicial resistance to it.

The report (in French and Dutch) is available here