Tech & Rights

Belgium's Handling of Terror Threat Questioned

Were the actions of Belgian authorities in the wake of the Paris attacks justified and proportionate to the threat at hand?

by David Morelli
Military and police were deployed throughout the streets of the Brussels. (Image: Miguel Discart - Flickr/CC content)
After the lockdown of Brussels and alert levels jumping from one to another, the League of Human Rights questions certain measures taken by the government to manage the announced imminent threat on the capital.

The imminent threat lasted six days. Alert levels were on a roller coaster without verifiable information to justify these changes. Explanations, when given, were confused, contradictory, and cacophonous.

Crisis management

That sums up the way many citizens and organizations - such as the League of Human Rights (LDH) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) - perceived the government’s management of the crisis. So was this really the case?

Without possibility to objectively analyze during the crisis the relevance of government measures, which resulted in tanks in the streets of the capital, closed schools and a lack of information to the public, LDH and FIDH can only observe and question the lack of transparency of the government's communication now that some time has passed.

Doubt as to the legitimacy of these measures was not allowed to be voiced during the emergency period. In the weeks after, and given the opacity of communication, doubt is not only allowed, it is necessary.

Specific issues

LDH and FIDH question the validity of certain measures taken by the government. What objective factors justified the move to highest security status, level 4, on the evening of Friday, November 20, which turned Brussels into a dead and anxious city?

The question is even more relevant after the fruitless searches conducted during the weekend. These did nothing to corroborate authorities' claim of an imminent attack, nor did the searches justify the military and police deployment on the streets of the capital.

It is not a question of stamping certain information as classified and "top secret." The authorities should treat citizens as adults, able to appreciate the relevance of the danger and to allow democratic bodies to do their indispensable work.

Motivation for the measures

Furthermore, what objective factors justified, on Thursday, November 26, lowering the threat level to 3 when just the day before, schools and subway reopened amid threat level 4?

Given these inconsistencies, both associations wonder if this is only the security of citizens that has justified these measures, or if other considerations, foreign to the declared threat (such as a lack of manpower and means to ensure level 4 until Monday, November 30), motivated this reduced level of alert. Could it not be, for example, a lack of staff and resources to ensure the level 4 until Monday that resulted in the change to level 3 on the 26th?

Chaotic communication

The authorities released information when they were forced to do so under pressure from national and international media. It is difficult in this context to blindly trust official statements justifying the raising or lowering of the alert level for security reasons.

LDH and FIDH therefore must question, on the one hand, any policies or budgetary reasons justifying the change to level 3 and, on the other hand, the possible political motivations that helped drive the increase to level 4.

This increase was a way to show that the government acts - but is it acting in an effective and useful way? It also created a climate conducive to strengthening security policies and, consequently, justifies the 18 measures announced following the attacks of Paris.

The opacity of the government's communication and inconsistency of its measures on the security front cast doubt on the legitimacy of its actions. It is necessary to remove these doubts and for the authorities to clarify the reasons for their decisions.

A democratic transparency is capital to maintain or to restore trust in government actions against a potential terrorist threat. Transparency is equally necessary to the parliamentarians, so that they may address in full knowledge the appropriateness and proportionality of the 18 measures to strengthen the security arsenal.

Remove doubts

The fight against terrorism is necessary. Faced with a pressing issue, this struggle may justify measures reducing certain freedoms, proportionately, limited in time and under strict democratic control. The government's communication undoubtedly casts doubt on the necessity and motivations which led to these measures and which should be only order of public security.

It is time for the government to provide answers to these questions that are the roots of our democracy. If there is not a reply by the government, LDH and FIDH paraphrase the prime minister's words concerning the terms of democracy and respect for human rights: "The threat is in front of us."

LDH will organize, in the coming days, a press conference to analyze, point by point, the 18 measures announced.