UN experts challenge Belgium to confront its colonial past

By agency reporter
February 13, 2019

Belgium must recognise the true scope of the violence and injustice of its colonial past in order to tackle the root causes of present-day racism faced by people of African descent, says a group of UN human rights experts at the end of a visit to the country. 

“The Government of Belgium needs to adopt a comprehensive national action plan against racism”, said Michal Balcerzak, Chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. 

“We found clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium. People of African descent face discrimination in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, including diversion from mainstream education into vocational schooling, ‘downgrading’ in employment opportunities and discrimination in the housing market”, added Balcerzak, presenting a statement at the end of the visit. 

The experts also urged the authorities to compile and use disaggregated data on the issue as this was essential for ensuring the recognition of people of African descent and overcoming their historical “social invisibility”. 

“We noted the important work of the Inter-Federal Centre for Equal Opportunities (Unia) as an independent public institution that combats discrimination and promotes equal opportunities in the protection of human rights and in documenting racism and inequality at the federal and regional levels”, they said.

The Working Group was also concerned that the public discourse did not reflect a nuanced understanding of history.  “The Government should review and ensure that textbooks and educational materials accurately reflect historical facts as they relate to past tragedies and atrocities committed during the colonial era,” added Balcerzak. 

The delegation, which included human rights experts Ahmed Reid and Dominique Day, welcomed the renaming of the former 'Square du Bastion' in Brussels as 'Patrice Lumumba Square' in June 2018 and encouraged further commemoration of notable people of African descent. 

During their visit from 4 to 11 February 2019, the Working Group travelled to Brussels, Antwerp, Liege, Namur and Charleroi to investigate racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance affecting people of African descent in Belgium. The experts also examined developments since their last mission to the country in 2005. 

In addition, they promoted the International Decade for people of African descent, which runs from 2015 to 2024 and aims both to highlight the contribution of people of African descent to societies, and to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation, in order to ensure the human rights of people of African descent are respected, promoted and fulfilled. 

The Working Group will present a report with its findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2019. 

* Read the experts' statement here 

* Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights https://www.ohchr.org/EN/pages/home.aspx

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