Annual report 2021

Press release – Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgium’s Colonial Past: A closure in December 2022 will not allow it to complete its mandate

Press release – Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgium’s Colonial Past: A closure in December 2022 will not allow it to complete its mandate

The Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgium’s colonial past was initially given a one-year mandate until July 2021. Last month, its mandate was extended for a second and final time until December 2022. These extensions are a welcome recognition that the commission needs to have a sufficient timeframe to complete its ambitious mandate. The commission has been tasked not only with looking into Belgium’s colonial actions in the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi but also to assess the long-term structural impact of these actions and to make suggestions on how this should be addressed. However, the signatories of this press release are concerned that closing the commission only two and a half years after its creation will leave it to unable to satisfactorily fulfil its mandate: to address Belgium’s colonial past and to propose measures to offer redress for the grave crimes committed during colonial rule and the continuing impact colonialism has in today’s society.

To be effective and legitimate, transitional justice processes such as truth commissions and commissions of investigation need to fulfil certain criteria. Particularly important is the need for participative processes. The commission has organised public hearings in which a diversity of academics, policy officials and civil society actors (including two sessions specifically with diaspora organisations) have been invited to testify and share their expertise on specific issues. But time and resource constraints have otherwise limited the commission’s visibility and public engagement strategies.

We regret the weakness of the communication strategy and outreach processes established by the commission. Only a handful of commissioners publicly communicate about its activities and regretfully some commissioners have even expressed their doubts about the necessity of dealing with the colonial past. While information about the commission’s working methods and hearings are publicly available on the federal parliament’s website, the signatories observe that the commission’s activities remain largely under the radar within Belgian society, and can even be said to be invisible in the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda.

From the outset, there has also been a limited ability of the commission to more broadly consult populations in Belgium, the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda. Consequently, the work of the commission has remained disconnected from popular perceptions of what meaningfully engaging with the colonial past might mean. There has, in particular, so far been little engagement of the commission with the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda directly. The signatories therefore welcome plans, as yet unconfirmed, for the commission to travel to the region. Such a delegation should strive to meet with both state officials and civil society organisations in all three countries. Local stakeholders should also be given the opportunity to submit written statements to the commission. In addition, the commission delegation could take advantage of such a visit to explore possible avenues for future cross-national initiatives between the four countries to deal with the colonial past.

The signatories further call on the commission to give itself the necessary means and time to comprehensively and credibly deal with the two outstanding, and also most politically sensitive issues, namely reparations and the link between colonialism, present-day racism and postcolonial injustices (public hearings on these are planned for over the summer).

While recognition of the nature and impact of Belgian colonialism would be an important outcome of the commission’s work, this needs to be accompanied with concrete proposals for a comprehensive reparative justice agenda. Beyond this, the commission should also consider developing proposals for supplementary measures or mechanisms which can fill the gaps left by the special parliamentary commission. A key legacy the special parliamentary commission should strive for is not of closing the debate on Belgium’s colonial past but of opening the door for further engagements, by all stakeholders involved, to comprehensively reckon with Belgium’s colonial past.

(French) Press release – Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgium’s Colonial Past: A closure in December 2022 will not allow it to complete its mandate

Press release : Publication of the expert report on Belgian colonial past – Signatories call for a holistic and inclusive justice process

Press release: Publication of the expert report on Belgian colonial past: Signatories call for a holistic and inclusive justice process

On the occasion of its presentation to Parliament, the signatories commend the publication of the report written by the multidisciplinary team of experts mandated by the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgium’s Colonial Past. This report is a new milestone towards a better understanding of the Belgian colonial era. It constitutes an important contribution to a peaceful debate on this issue between the different segments of contemporary Belgian society.

Claims about the historical harms of colonisation and their contemporary consequences in terms of structural racism have been present for many years in the Belgian public debate, but have gained renewed interest since the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. It was this social mobilisation, led mainly by Afro-descendant groups in Belgian society, that led to the establishment of the Special Commission in July 2020. The report of the Commission’s experts must therefore be appreciated against the demands for justice regarding Belgium’s colonial past.

In this respect, the report shows certain limitations that should be noted. First of all, this report was born out of a narrow process of truth establishment, mainly contained within Belgian public institutions. As mentioned several times, the Special Commission that commissioned this expert report is a political commission, controlled by the different Belgian political parties. Its work is, for the time being, not open to representatives of Belgian civil society, nor to civil societies from formerly colonised countries. Therefore, the experts’ report is not the result of an inclusive and open process, in contrast to the established good practices of transitional justice in terms of truth-establishment.

Secondly, the report only partially fulfils the objectives set by the Commission itself. It essentially addresses Belgium’s colonial past in the current Democratic Republic of Congo, and does not address the cases of Burundi and Rwanda. Similarly, the report is essentially focused on the actions of the Belgian state, and only slightly covers the role of non-state actors. Yet the commission is mandated to examine the role and structural impact that not only the Belgian state and the Belgian authorities, but also non-state actors such as the monarchy, the church and the private sector had on the colonial phenomenon.

The signatories hope that this report will serve as a basis for an actual Transitional Justice process, whose tools (truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition) are now established to be relevant to tackle colonial liabilities and continuities. The report offers a number of avenues for reflection that the Commission should materialize into concrete plans for reforms and in an open and inclusive framework. In this regard, the Commission is particularly expected to publish a work plan for its upcoming work and to clarify its engagement strategies with all stakeholders. This report should not be a mere contribution to History, but the basis for an articulated response to the demands for justice, for the past and the present.

In conclusion, the signatories welcome the initiative of the Belgian Parliamentarians to take up the debate on the colonial period and to try to objectify what is at stake. However, ASF wishes to recall that only a holistic and inclusive process of justice is capable of healing the wounds of Belgian society in order for its different segments to live together harmoniously and to restore the dignity of the victims of Belgian colonisation in Africa.

Signatories

  • African Futures Action Lab
  • Avocats Sans Frontières
  • Bamko-cran asbl
  • CaCoBuRwa
  • Christophe Marchand

Annual report 2020

The health crisis in Belgium: A breeding ground for indirect discrimination?

The health crisis in Belgium: A breeding ground for indirect discrimination?

>> Read more about our monitoring effort and access other articles <<

Author : Flavia Clementi

Avocats Sans Frontières publishes a study on the indirectly discriminatory impact of Belgian emergency policies on certain categories of the population, particularly vulnerable ones. The analysis, carried out as part of the project ‘Covid-19 Monitoring and Rule of Law’, relies on observation activities, as well as a set of interviews conducted by ASF in June and July 2020.

To limit the spread of Covid-19, the Belgian government took, at the start of the health crisis, a set of measures contained on March 23rd 2020’s ministerial ruling, aiming to reduce contact between people and imposing a general lockdown. [1]

These measures, seeming neutral at first, because applicable to the entire population, however indirectly had discriminatory consequences, in their enforcement on certain groups of vulnerable people. [2]

Several interviews conducted with social workers, mediation and surveillance bodies active in Belgium during the lockdown, as well as a documentary analysis; revealed that immigrants, prison inmates, homeless people, women victims of violence, the elderly and the handicapped, those economically vulnerable, and those living in deprived neighborhoods, indeed suffered more than others from the emergency sanitary measures.

This is due, partly, to a uniform response to the crisis, which only exacerbated pre-existing socio-economical inequalities. It is also imputable to differences in the enforcement of the measures, more severe on certain social groups.

In the first instance, the interruption or limitation of access to social assistance, to visas and asylum, caused by the generalized closure or digitization of essential services, has had the effect of further weakening the already vulnerable segments of the population to whom these services are addressed. This freezing of services has also triggered a ‘domino effect’, best illustrated by the emergence of a new population of homeless people who were unable to assert their economic and social rights during the lockdown period. Beyond the interruption of essential services, the general lockdown decided by the government has further degraded the condition of certain groups of people, hence not affecting the entire population in the same way. Those who could not stay “at home,” those held in prisons or detention centers, those in shelters, the homeless, and women victims of domestic violence due to lack of decent and safe housing paid a greater price. For them, compliance with lockdown measures has sometimes violated their human rights, such as the right to dignity or the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment. In other cases, lockdown was physically impossible.

In the second instance, indirect discrimination was also induced during the police checks of compliance with lockdown measures. Such abuses were observed on several occasions and appeared to result both from the vagueness of the government’s measures and from a significant scope for interpretation left to the police. Cross-analysis of the incidents collected during the interviews, supplemented by documentary monitoring, revealed a practice of profiling in the application and monitoring of measures, or at least a tendency to target certain groups of people more heavily based on their membership in specific social strata and ethnic groups, or specific neighborhoods and areas.

As the European Court of Human Rights instructs, such discrimination, if it can be proven, entails the responsibility of the Belgian State. Indeed, the latter did not take into account the existing inequalities within society when managing the crisis and did not qualify the measures to protect these categories of vulnerable people, by amplifying economic and social differences.

Read and download the study here

[1] Text available at https://bit.ly/3mzaGFw .

[2] Measures that are neutral in their formulation may nevertheless have discriminatory effects on certain groups of people when implemented. These discriminations are classified as ‘indirect discrimination’ by European and Council of Europe law.

Continue reading “The health crisis in Belgium: A breeding ground for indirect discrimination?”

Annual report 2019