The Kingdom of Belgium is a parliamentary democracy with a limited constitutional monarchy. The country is a federal state with several levels of government: national; regional (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels); language community (Flemish, French, and German); provincial; and local. The Federal Council of Ministers, headed by the prime minister, remains in office as long as it retains the confidence of the lower house (Chamber of Representatives) of the bicameral parliament. Observers considered federal parliamentary elections held in 2014 to be free and fair.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included some physical attacks motivated by anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Authorities generally investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted such cases.
Authorities actively investigated, prosecuted, and punished officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: Holocaust denial, defamation, sexist remarks and attitudes that target a specific individual, and incitement to hatred are criminal offenses punishable by a minimum of eight days (for Holocaust denial) or one month (incitement to hatred and sexist remarks or attitudes) and up to one year in prison and fines, plus a possible revocation of the right to vote or run for public office. If the incitement to hatred was based on racism or xenophobia, the case would be tried in the regular courts. If, however, the incitement stemmed from other motives, including homophobia or religious bias, a longer and more costly trial by jury generally would be required. The government prosecuted and courts convicted persons under these laws.
In July 2017 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously rejected the appeal of Fouad Belkacem, the former leader and spokesperson of the disbanded Salafi organization Sharia4Belgium. Authorities prosecuted Belkacem in 2012 for creating YouTube videos in which he called on viewers to commit violence against non-Muslims. He was sentenced to a two-year prison term. In his appeal, Belkacem claimed he was wrongfully convicted of public incitement to discrimination, violence, and hatred. He claimed Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protected his free speech and that he never intended to incite others. In its decision, the ECHR stated that Belkacem’s remarks online were markedly hateful and incompatible with the ECHR’s underlying values of tolerance, nondiscrimination, and peaceful coexistence. The ECHR further stated that it upheld states’ rights to oppose political movements based on religious fundamentalism and noted that Belkacem had attempted to deflect Article 10 from its real purpose by using his right to freedom of expression for ends that were manifestly contrary to the spirit of the convention.
Press and Media Freedom: The prohibition of Holocaust denial, defamation, sexist remarks, attitudes that target a specific individual, and incitement to hatred applies to print and broadcast media, books, and online newspapers and journals.
In observation of World Refugee Day on June 20, some 100 activists took over a refugee detention facility construction site, preventing workers from entering. Police eventually regained control of the site and administratively arrested protesters, including a news crew of the Francophone public service broadcasting organization, the RTBF, which had been on location to cover the story. All protestors were released after one hour. The RTBF and Belgian and European journalist federations filed formal complaints, and the prime minister ordered an investigation of the incident, asserting that freedom of the press is essential and that police must maintain public order at all times.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
According to estimates compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 87 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, including specific subsidiary protection that goes beyond asylum criteria established by the 1951 Convention relating to the Treatment of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. Refugee status and residence permits are limited to five years and become indefinite if extended.
Authorities continued to face a significant flow of “transit migrants,” defined as those who remained in the country without requesting asylum while attempting illegal travel to the United Kingdom. To address the flow, the federal government started to detain transit migrants physically to ensure their repatriation.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country denied asylum to asylum seekers who arrived from a safe country of origin or transit, pursuant to the EU’s Dublin III Regulation.
Durable Solutions: The country accepted refugees through UNHCR, including persons located in Italy and Greece, under the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism. The country also conducted a voluntary return program for migrants in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary “subsidiary” protection to individuals who did not satisfy the legal criteria for refugee status but who could not return to their country of origin due to a real risk of serious harm. Under EU guidelines, individuals granted “subsidiary protection” are entitled to temporary residence permits, travel documents, access to employment, and equal access to health care and housing. In 2017 authorities granted subsidiary protection to 2,900 individuals. In the first half of the year, authorities granted protection to 1,095 individuals.
According to UNHCR, at the end of 2017, there were 7,695 persons in the country who fell under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate. The country does not have a significant number of residents who are stateless, de jure or de facto, and does not contribute to statelessness, as the legal framework for stripping an individual of his or her citizenship does not exist except in cases of dual citizenship with another country.
To be recognized as stateless, a requestor must go through legal proceedings and acquire a court ruling on his or her stateless status. Since July 2017 family courts have been tasked with handling these requests in hopes of decreasing wait times. The requestor may appeal the court’s ruling. Recognition of statelessness does not automatically afford a stateless person resident status in the country. Stateless persons may apply for Belgian nationality after meeting the requirements for legal residency.