Democracy & Justice


Civicus Monitor

by LibertiesEU


Belgian MEP implicated in Qatargate scandal

On 19th July 2023, Belgian police raided the home of Belgian MEP Maria Arena. This makes her the fourth MEP to be implicated in the European Parliament's Qatargate corruption scandal. Arena was first linked to the scandal last year when her name appeared in an arrest warrant accusing her of helping former MEP Antonio Panzeri to increase Qatar's influence in the European Parliament through bribes. As a result, Arena resigned from her position as Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, which had previously been held by Panzeri. She is also suspected of having received gifts from Qatar. As reported previously by the CIVICUS Monitor, the three other active MEPs involved in the scandal are Eva Kaili, Andrea Cozzolini and Marc Tarabella.

Hospitals in Brussels can no longer deny the right to abortion

“[It is] no longer acceptable for a woman in Brussels to be refused a voluntary termination of pregnancy in a hospital in 2023,” declared Brussels Health Minister Alain Maron on 19th June 2023, referring to a new regional law that abolishes a doctor's conscientious objection as an obstacle to abortion in a hospital. With this new law, which is due to come into force in January 2024, hospitals will be obliged to perform an abortion at the patient's request or refer them to another hospital in their network.

Justice minister resigns after terror attack

In October 2023, Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne resigned following a terrorist attack in Brussels in which an Islamic extremist shot dead two Swedish football fans. It became known that the attacker, Abdesalem Lassoued, had been denied asylum and had been requested for extradition by Tunisia. Van Quickenborne announced his resignation and admitted a serious error in the handling of the case. He revealed that an extradition request had been received from Tunisia for Lassoued in August 2022, but that the judge responsible had not acted upon it. The minister described this as an individual, monumental and unacceptable error with tragic consequences. Lassoued carried out the attack on 16th October 2023, which resulted in more than 35,000 spectators at a football match between Belgium and Sweden being trapped in a stadium for several hours for security reasons. Lassoued had applied for asylum in several European countries and had a history of criminal behaviour, but the authorities could not confirm his radicalisation, so he was not classified as dangerous.


Union organises 24-hour strike for staff in Antwerp prison

On 10th August 2023, the staff of the Antwerp prison began a 24-hour strike to protest against the government's inaction regarding the escalating aggression of the inmates. Around 250 of the prison's 270 staff took part in the strike, which was coordinated by the Christian trade union ACV/CSC. The strike was triggered by an incident in July in which an inmate with mental illness bit a member of staff and injured two others. As a result, the staff member concerned was transferred to another department, but there were no consequences for the attacker. The union argues that violent incidents are becoming more frequent and have become a monthly occurrence. Staff representatives claim that this incident is proof that inmates with mental disorders should not be housed in prisons.

Unions organise strikes over working conditions at Ryanair

Ryanair's Belgian pilots staged their fourth and fifth strikes since the beginning of 2023 in August and September, respectively. Having endured a 20% reduction in pay during the pandemic, Ryanair pilots are now seeking salary increases in line with Belgium's high inflation rates and a restructuring of their vacation days. From 15th to 16th August 2023, two-thirds of Ryanair's Belgian pilots went on strike, with additional strikes scheduled for 14th to 15th September. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, Belgian and French Ryanair pilots engaged in multiple strikes last year following unsuccessful negotiations to improve working conditions.


Large pro-Palestinian rally draws thousands in Brussels

According to police reports, around 12,000 protesters gathered in the European Quarter of Brussels on 22nd October 2023 to take part in a pro-Palestinian demonstration. The demonstrators wanted to express their solidarity with the Palestinian community in the Gaza Strip and speak out against Israel's policies. According to the organisers, who were made up of a broad alliance of civil society groups and trade unions, up to 40,000 people took part in the event. The protest passed off peacefully and without any significant incidents.

Mass arrests at protests in Belgium after police killing of minor in France

In late June, protests swept across Belgium in response to an incident in France where Nahel Merzouk, an unarmed 17-year-old of North African descent, was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop. This event sparked massive unrest in France and raised broader questions about the treatment of marginalised groups by the police and social inequality in the country.

Two days after Nahel’s shooting, on 29th June 2023, calls for protests in Brussels circulated on social media, leading to large gatherings of young people in various municipalities during the night. The protests subsequently escalated into riots, resulting in a large police presence. Several incidents were reported, including fires being set and barricades being erected, but these were quickly dispersed thanks to the intervention of firefighters and local residents. Public transport in the city was also disrupted due to the unrest.

According to media reports, a total of 64 people were arrested on the night of 29th June, including a minor who was taken to the police station for questioning after allegedly assaulting an officer. The minor was released the following morning. The remaining 63 people, including 47 minors and 16 adults, were taken into administrative detention as a “preventive measure”. At a press conference, Prime Minister De Croo thanked the authorities for preventing an “escalation” of violence. He emphasised that there was “no connection between us and what happened [in France].” As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, racial discrimination remains a pervasive problem in Belgium.

The protests continued in the days that followed. On 30th June 2023, the Brussels police carried out the administrative arrests of a further 94 people. As justification for the arrests of 80 minors and 14 adults, the police stated that these “preventive” arrests were made because some protesters had brought equipment that “could be used to commit damage.” This happened even though no major incidents were reported. On the same day, police in another city, Liège, also made 30 administrative arrests. In addition, 35 more administrative arrests were made following new protests in Brussels on Saturday, 1st July 2023. The police again described these arrests as “preventive” and stated that they were carried out for identification purposes.

On 18th August 2023, the Belgian police shot and killed a 31-year-old driver in Oupeye, Liège. According to several reports, the man was stopped by two police officers for alleged reckless driving. The man allegedly failed to comply with police instructions and later ran over a police officer with the quad bike he was riding. This case bears some similarities to the Nahel case in France, which also involved police using lethal force against a delivery driver during a traffic stop. This incident triggered another series of anti-police riots in Liège, with the first outbreak occurring on the night of the incident. The protests continued from Friday night into the weekend and spread to the neighbouring town of Herstal, where there was serious damage to private and public property.

The right to peaceful assembly under threat: Protests continue over “anti-protest” law

On 5th October, Belgian trade unions and human rights organisations protested against the so-called “Van Quickenborne law”, which they fear could criminalise demonstrators. The proposed law, named after former Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, would empower judges to ban “rioters” – i.e. people who commit offences such as assault, vandalism or damage to property during demonstrations – from attending any protests in the future, with repeat offenders facing bans of three to six years.

As highlighted in the previous CIVICUS Monitor report, the bill has faced widespread criticism from Belgium’s three largest trade unions, which argue that it could harm trade union action and curtail their fundamental freedoms. The ambiguity of the bill raises concerns that it may be used to target trade unionists and activists by falsely labelling them as “rioters,” thereby restricting their freedom of assembly under the law. Quickenborne, however, contends that this legislation would establish a “more humane, faster, and firmer judicial process.”

The bill was approved by the Justice Committee on 14th June 2023, with additional amendments. One amendment mandated that, before imposing a ban, judges must consider the potential impact on fundamental freedoms, in particular “the freedom to demonstrate for political, trade union, humanitarian, philosophical, environmental and civic purposes or the right to take collective action”. Another amendment excluded strikes from the category of “protest rallies”, ensuring that the law wouldn’t apply to those on strike. Despite these amendments, a joint statement by the three major unions and civil society organisations such as the Human Rights League, Greenpeace and Amnesty International expressed their belief that the law still poses a threat to the right of collective action.

Previously, a protest took place on 7th June 2023, and on 28th June 2023, almost 2,000 people gathered in front of then-Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne’s Brussels office to protest the “anti-protest law.”

Protests over franchising Delhaize continue

In another development, also documented in the previous CIVICUS Monitor update, protests against multinational retailer Delhaize continued to take place across Belgium. In recent months, Belgians have expressed their dissatisfaction with Delhaize’s decision to turn its supermarket locations into franchises, leaving wages and benefits up to individual franchise owners to determine and affecting thousands of employees across the country. Although demonstrators have been prohibited from blocking access to Delhaize stores, they continued to protest outside or near them, with support groups organising boycotts of the chain’s stores. Some cases of vandalism have also been reported.

Mandatory sex education in French-speaking communities draws protests, arson attacks

On 17th September 2023, around 2,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Brussels to protest against a decree introducing mandatory sex education classes in French-speaking schools from the beginning of the new school year. A smaller protest with a few hundred participants had already taken place on 7th September 2023, the day the decree was officially endorsed by the Parliament of the French Community.

The decree in question, which concerns the so-called EVRAS programme (Education in Relational, Affective and Sexual Life) obliges schools in the French-speaking Wallonia and Brussels regions to provide two hours of sex education to sixth-grade students, who are generally between 11 and 12 years old. In addition, a further two hours of sex education are compulsory in the fourth year of secondary school, when students are 15-16 years old. The lessons are intended to cover topics related to sexuality, relationships and emotions. This change aims to standardise sex education in French- and Dutch-speaking schools, where sex education is already compulsory.

Despite the programme having been a part of the official curriculum in Belgium since 2012, the French Community authorities’ move to make it compulsory encountered severe backlash from religious and conservative groups. Several Islamic associations issued statements claiming that sex education contradicts their faith and could lead to the “hypersexualisation” of children, and similar sentiments were echoed by Catholic groups. Some have argued that introducing topics such as gender identity could be “traumatising” for young children.

Disinformation surrounding the programme originating from radical religious and conspiracy circles spread quickly on social media, advancing claims that the education package was aimed at promoting paedophilia, or “making children want to change their gender”, which officials sought to dispel in numerous public statements. Despite these attempts, tensions increased to such a degree that several schools in the Charleroi region were targeted in arson attacks suspected to be linked with the demonstrations, which Mayor of Charleroi, Paul Magnette, has termed “acts of terror”.

Hundreds protest against the worsening reception crisis in Belgium

Belgium’s Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Nicole de Moor announced on 29th August 2023 that Belgium would suspend the reception of single males seeking asylum, arguing that the country “has been doing more than its fair share” in accepting asylum seekers. In anticipation of increased migration flows in winter, she explained that this change is aimed at prioritising the allocation of places in reception facilities to families with children.

The decision has been widely condemned by politicians, legal practitioners and civil society. Multiple civil society organisations, including the Human Rights League and CIRÉ challenged the decision in front of Belgian administrative courts. On 13th September 2023, the Council of State, the supreme administrative court in the country, ruled to suspend De Moor’s policy, finding it to be contrary to the January 2007 Reception Act, which proclaims all asylum seekers are entitled to material conditions allowing them to “lead a life in human dignity” from the moment they lodge their application for international protection, and “does not permit [the government] to deprive a specific category of asylum seekers of these rights [...] in order to resolve the difficulties it claims to be faced with”.

Despite this ruling, De Moor insisted that the policy would not change. This is not the first time Belgian authorities have failed to comply with court rulings related to asylum seekers’ right to reception. Fedasil, the government agency responsible for managing reception facilities, has been condemned by Belgian labour courts over 9,000 times in 2022 and 2023 alone for not providing asylum applicants with shelter or financial compensation in the event lodging is not available. The total amount of fines due in these cases is estimated to be above EUR 100 million.

In this context, around 140 asylum seekers were evicted from a building in Brussels on 31st August 2023. These asylum seekers were forced to squat in the building in question while they waited to be admitted to a reception centre or for their asylum applications to be processed. As a result, around 200 people took to the streets to protest against the eviction. The demonstrators expressed their dissatisfaction with the state's inaction and its failure to find a humane solution to the reception crisis.

Protest in Brussels demanding childcare policy reform

On 2nd July 2023, around 150 people gathered outside the Flemish government headquarters in Brussels to demand more funding for the children's sector from Flemish Social Affairs Minister Hilde Crevits. Among the demonstrators was the group De Eerste 1000 Dagen (The First 1000 Days), an action group calling for faster implementation of the plans proposed by the Ministry. The group is also calling for more investment from the Flemish authorities to create structural changes, including an increase in staff to improve the ratio of children to carers.


Concerns over intelligence leaks stigmatising Muslims

On 2nd August 2023, L’Écho reported that the Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee (Committee R), which oversees intelligence services in the country, had urged Belgium’s State Security to take more measures to prevent the leaking of sensitive state information to the press and prosecute perpetrators of this conduct. In the past, there have been repeated cases of information about mosques and Muslims being leaked to the press. In February 2022, the Muslim Executive, the official body representing the Islamic community in Belgium, lodged an official complaint with the Committee due to multiple leaked State Security reports they claimed were aimed at “creating a negative and stigmatising image of Islam and Muslims in Flanders”. In order to curb this practice and make leaks easier to trace back to their source, the Committee R has called for documents to be “individualised” when sensitive information is shared among ministers and other officials. However, State Security denies being the source of the leaks.

Trust in Belgian media at an all-time low

On 14th June 2023, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released its annual Digital News Report. The report highlighted that only 44% of Belgians “trust most news most of the time” in 2023, a decrease of seven percent from 2022. With only 51% of respondents stating that they trust the news, media scepticism is deeply rooted in Belgium. However, this trend is observed on a global scale, as global trust in the news has fallen to 40% this year.


Rise of the Belgian far-right threatens trans rights

With the far-right party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) leading the polls ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections, there is growing concern about the future rights of transgender people in a country that is considered progressive and a leader in the EU on this issue.

Vlaams Belang, a Flemish nationalist party affiliated with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy, has sought to ban hormone treatments and gender reassignment surgery for minors. They have also expressed concern about the “growing trend of minors identifying as transgender”. Alexander Van Hoecke, spokesman for Vlaams Belang, has denied that his party holds anti-trans views, saying the party “understands the difficulties faced by people with gender dysphoria”. At the same time, the party is against a law that would allow people to change their gender in official documents an unlimited number of times, arguing the policy “trivialises” someone changing their gender.

Belgium ready to take Hungary to court over infringement of LGBTQI+ rights

On 12th July 2023, the Committee on External Relations of the Chamber of Representatives, the lower house of the Belgian Federal Parliament, unanimously adopted a motion to bring Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights for its discriminatory policy towards LGBTQI+ people. This threatened legal action is to be initiated if the European Commission’s infringement proceedings against Hungary’s law banning homosexuality are unsuccessful.

Antwerp Pride sees largest procession to date

Antwerp's Pride Parade, held on the 12th of August 2023, attracted over 140,000 participants, marking its highest-ever attendance. The event was attended by 74 delegations, including some of Belgium's largest companies. At this year’s parade, the Belgian army also took part in the procession for the first time, marching alongside the police delegation.

See the original article on Civicus Monitor.

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