Human rights institute warns respect for rule of law in Belgium is regressing

Respect for the rule of law is regressing in Belgium, the Federal Institute for Human Rights warns in its 2023 annual report. It highlights three key issues: marginalisation of the judiciary, threats to human rights defenders and weaknesses in the right to information.

According to the report, published on Thursday, the most serious violation is the failure to enforce court rulings. The authorities have failed to enforce thousands of judgments relating to issues such as reception conditions for asylum seekers, overcrowding in prisons and the refusal to pay fines. 

“This problem constitutes a real crisis for the rule of law: what is the value of a court decision if it cannot be implemented?” says the institute.

The backlog of court cases, which has already been condemned several times, is also a major concern. According to the report, the inability to clear the backlog demonstrates a lack of interest in functional justice and raises questions about the right to a fair trial.

"What is the value of a court decision if it cannot be implemented?”

It also points to the lack of human and financial resources for the judiciary, which “not only has a negative impact on its ability to recruit magistrates and devote sufficient time to each case, but also undermines the confidence that citizens have in the justice system”.

In 2022 and 2023, the institute conducted research on the pressure faced by civil society organisations. It found that 55 per cent had experienced aggression and intimidation at least once between 2020 and 2022.

“Generally speaking, the organisations note a deterioration in their situation over the last two years, due to their financial insecurity, but also to the difficulties they experience in participating in the public policy-making process,” the institute says. However, it reports that most of the organisations surveyed felt the quality of the Belgian civic space was relatively good.

Human rights and democracy

Finally, the institute is concerned about the right to information, pointing to an upsurge in aggression and gagging proceedings against journalists.

Studies published in 2023 by journalists’ associations AJP and VVJ showed that more than half of journalists said they had faced verbal or physical violence and threats. It is therefore necessary to commit resources to protect them, the human rights institute says.

“The rule of law is eroding in Belgium. This erosion is not inevitable, but it is no less risky for human rights and democracy,” the report says. “It is essential that the authorities take respect for the rule of law more seriously.”


Federal Institute for Human Rights director Martien Schotsmans at a protest outside the organisation's headquarters in Brussels, December 2023 © BELGA PHOTO STEPHANIE LINSINGH

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