We Europeans

Hot air and human rights

Like a hot air balloon, the issue of respect for human rights in Flanders goes up and up in the institutional stratosphere. After a near collision with a critical report from the Council of Europe – a report which produced no response at all from the Flemish Government – the balloon has now floated up into the rarified air of the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations.

Paragraph 10 of the minutes of the 100th Session of the Committee, held in Geneva this October, states the following (our translation from the French):

The Committee is concerned over the fact that access to certain rights foreseen in the Convention may be impeded by decisions taken by some communal authorities in Flanders, notably with regard to the purchase of communal land, access to services and housing, the enjoyment of certain social benefits, as well as the right to stand for office, requiring the knowledge of or intention to learn Dutch, thereby creating a discrimination against other categories of the population.

The State concerned should ensure, in conformity with Article 50 of the Convention, that the decisions taken by the communal authorities on linguistic requirements do not open the way to discrimination in the exercise of the rights set out in the Convention by other categories of the population. It should also encourage awareness and exercise of the right of appeal against such decisions by the population concerned.

Though cautiously worded, the Committee’s opinion leaves no doubt that the measures taken by these Flemish communes, most of them on the outskirts of Brussels, are undemocratic. In referring to the right to stand for office, it hints at the long-standing refusal of the Flemish Government to recognise the democratic election of the three French-speaking candidates for the office of burgomaster. The Flemish Government has responded by saying it will undertake an “in-depth analysis” of the report and decide whether remedial action is necessary.

Paradoxically, the Flemish Right seems to think the development of supranational institutions will help it escape its human responsibilities. NVA spokesman Jeroen Overmeer was recently quoted as saying that: “The EU makes it possible for countries such as this one to split up. We believe we are experiencing both globalisation and localisation. Some problems are global, like defence or the environment, and these need to be dealt with by the EU. But at the same time democracy needs to be closer to the people, and that is why we are a regionalist party. The two trends go hand in hand.”

So the NVA believes that globalisation implies disinterest in the application of human rights? Evidently not, if this UN report is anything to go by.

As in all matters Belgian, today’s situation has a lot to do with things that happened a long time ago. The Flemish have good reason to harbour a deep-set resentment towards French-speakers – though they fail to make a distinction between the Walloons and the French-speaking elites of the big cities, the latter being largely responsible for introducing class sentiment to a largely classless society.

There are also some less historic, yet more realistic, factors that can be cited in defence of the Flemish Government’s standpoint. The communes around Brussels are under constant assault from the money-rich and property-hungry French-speaking middle classes (not to mention the Eurocrats!), while the Region suffers from a chronic lack of social housing.

It can also be said that there was extensive coverage of the UN Committee’s report in the Flemish media… and hardly a word anywhere else!

Other issues highlighted in the UN report? Belgium’s record combating domestic violence, providing facilities for the handicapped, ensuring gender equality, curbing police violence, combating human trafficking, providing detainees access to legal and medical services, improving prison conditions and the treatment of deportees, suppressing racism and improving the treatment of minors. What was that about Flanders?

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