Belgium: Final report of 'intercultural dialog' committee

Belgium: Final report of 'intercultural dialog' committee

This is a translation of an article by John De Wit (NL). I did not translate his list of objections at the end.

The report is available in PDF format in Dutch and French.

In order to work out how to integrate the various cultures in our society, the coalition agreement of 2008 established 'intercultural dialog'. Minister of Equal Opportunities Joëlle Milquet (cdH) was tasked with the effort.

A report-committee of 29 members was established, with four goals:
1. Formulate policy recommendations
2. Debate with the concerned groups in the form of 'round tables' in order to learn their needs
3. Develop a communications policy in order to eliminate stereotypes about minorities
4. Publicize the 'best practices' which are already applied here and there, so that other groups can adopt them

The committees worked on certain subjects: education, work, governance, etc creating separate unpublished reports on each. The report committee, which according to the two chairmen consisted of 'people of very different views", did make a synthesis report of the proposals by the committees which was published and handed to Joëlle Milquet.

Marie-Claire Foblets, co-chairman of the report committee, says that the round tables were an 'exercise in listening and had no pretensions of being representative'. She emphasized that the report assumes that the majority of the population should adapt to the complaints of the minorities, but only as far as they were prepared to do so. "Thereby certain accomplishments, which we see as definitive for our freedoms, should be reconsidered: neutrality of public services, removing religion from civil cases [ed: the editors add that this supposedly refers to allowing sharia court mediation] etc."

The central idea is that every discrimination should be eliminated and that society should be formed anew. Foblets: "How do we form a society? By knowing each other and through social symbols. From this philosophy we must look at our history completely differently and should revise the paid holidays".

Foblets wants a permanent body for observation as a result of this dialog, something similar to the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy.

The report consists of two minority positions: one by Edouard Delruelle, deputy director of the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (CGKR) and one by Naima Charkaoui, director of the Minorities Center, which is subsidized by the Flemish government.


A. Education

* The teacher's profession should be revalued and institutions which succeed in attracting more teachers of other cultures should be rewarded

* Cultural or religious convictions should not be reasons not to follow compulsory education. Education should be mixed: boys and girls together.

* Compulsory education should be free and therefore study grants should be automatically granted to the most vulnerable.

* The history of colonization, migration and the various forms of discrimination should be part of the curriculum. Teacher should apologize for our colonial past

* Comparative religious education, where students learn about all philosophical outlooks, should be promoted.

* Religion teachers should get training in Belgium.

* Just as French and English are second and third languages, the languages of our most important cultural minorities (Arabic, Turkish) should be optional for all students in school.

* Symbols of life philosophies (headscarf, kippah, turban) may be worn starting from the 4th year of secondary school. Till then they are forbidden everywhere. In colleges, universities and in adult education, symbols of life philosophy should not be banned.

On this issue there were two minority views:

- CGKR-director Edouard Delruelle thinks that schools should have the option to always ban these symbols.

- Minorities Center director Naima Charkaoui wants symbols of life-philosophy to be allowed everywhere, both at school and at work.

* The school system should account for the cultural and religious holidays of all groups. In Flanders it's already possible to take a vacation on these holidays (Eid al-Fitr for Muslims, Feast of Tabernacles for Jews), in Wallonia not yet. That should change.

B. Work

* In order to get more people from minorities working, the government should work with a temporary quota. People from ethnic and cultural minorities should be given priority in appointments, if they have the same abilities as an ethnic Belgian candidate. Private companies who want to get government tenders should also follow this temporary quota.

* Every enterprise should add an overview of it's personnel file annually, when filing the annual accounts. They should also clarify the state of diversity in the company.

* Anonymous applications (nameless and without mentioning nationality or photo) should be possible in companies with more than 50 employees.

* "Reasonable adaptations" should be implemented for cultural and ethnic minorities. Currently the law obligates everybody to reasonable adaptations for the handicapped. NMBS [ed: Belgian rail] is obligated to make its platforms usable for the blind and accessible for wheelchair users. The report committee wants reasonable adaptations to be obligatory also for cultural and ethnic minorities. It's not clear to the committee why employers don't allow Muslims to say their prayers, if it's possible within the work schedule. The report committee also wants 'reasonable adaptations' in the hospitals. The committee doesn't see why clinics won't enable women who only want to be treated by female doctors to do so, except for emergency care.

Edouard Delruelle (CGKR) has a minority position also here. He wants the anti-discrimination law to stay as-is and that 'reasonable adaptations' should only be obligatory for the handicapped.

* The obligatory holidays should be adapted. The report committee wants to only keep the following as obligatory holidays: January 1, May 1, July 21 (National Day), November 11 (Armistice Day) and December 25. Therefore: Easter Sunday and Monday, Pentecost Sunday and Monday, Ascension Day, Assumption of Mary Day and All Saints' Day should be dropped. In their place come three new obligatory non-religious holidays: International Women's Day (Mar 8), International Day against Racism (Mar 21) and the World Day for Cultural Diversity (May 21). In additional everybody may choose two 'floating holidays'.

* Youth who stop schooling prematurely should get a personal guide for the work market

* Vacation jobs should preferably be offered to youth in difficulties and in particular youth from ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. Recruitment should be done in consultation with the associations from neighborhoods with social exclusion.

* Anybody who resides in Belgium and whose identity can be verified, should be able to open a bank account. This is the only way to encourage people to establish companies. Currently asylum-seekers can't have a bank account.

C. Government

* The culture-pact from 1971 should be revised. The pact was meant to protect cultural minorities from the majority. This applied respectively to the Humanists (in Flanders) and the Catholics (in Wallonia). The culture pact enabled all those groups to participate in culture, youth, sport and recreational policy. The culture pact should be opened for all other religious and ethnic minorities. The Senate should realize this reform.

* Civil servants and other representatives of public services may wear symbols of life philosophy (such as the turban, headscarf and kippah), except if they have a position of authority. The report committee is thinking of the police, courts and army, and expressly not of teachers in school.

* Ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals should be allowed without anesthesia. The law should remain as-is, otherwise freedom of religion would be infringed upon.

* The genocide law, which criminalizes the denial, justification, minimization and approval of the Holocaust (the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime), should be expanded to all genocides. The judges should decide in practice whether it applies.

* Politicians should apologize for the questionable parts of Belgian history

* Names of streets which insult people from the former colonies (such as Leopald II Lane) should be removed. [ed: In the report the commitee was careful not to mention names]

* There should be a Museum for Migration

* In order to fight racist practices in the police services, monitoring cameras should be installed in police departments and police cars. Comité P, which supervises the police, should be more independent. Disciplinary charges should start immediate at the same time as criminal charges, in order to avoid passing the term of limitations.

D. Property and services

* CGKR should be a central point for the complaints about discrimination in the housing market. "Joint committees of renters and owners" should be established all over the country in order to mediate between renters and owners. These committees should also promote cooperation with anti-racism organizations. The committees should reflect the population groups from the area as much as possible.

* Social housing should offer more space, so that families with many children could live there more easily.

* It's necessary to have more areas for Travellers and the law which says that Travellers may not stay for more than 48 hours should be abolished.