The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Belgium is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Belgium is also a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Belgium is a State Party to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 governs freedom of assembly and association:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
According to Article 26 of the 1831 Constitution of Belgium (as amended):
Belgians have the right to gather peaceably and without arms, in accordance with the laws that can regulate the exercise of this right, without submitting it to prior authorisation.
This provision does not apply to open air meetings, which are entirely subject to police regulations.
There is no specific law in Belgium governing assemblies.
Open air gatherings are generally permitted in Belgium, although they are subject to police regulations. Open-air gatherings and individual demonstrations are usually prohibited on Saturdays and in certain public areas in Brussels. The Belgian supreme court (Conseil d’Etat) recalls that freedom of assembly is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution, which cannot be undermined as long as the assembly is peaceful and unarmed.CE, 7 November 1998, No. 76815.
Every gathering, demonstration, or procession in public space is subject to prior authorisation by the relevant mayor. In Brussels, the request must be submitted at least 10 days before the intended date and has to include the following elements: the name, address and phone number of the organisers, the topic of the event, the date and time of the planned gathering, the planned itinerary, the planned location and time of the event’s end, the evaluation of the number of participants, the intended means of transport, and the planned organisational measures.Art. 31, General Police Regulation of the City of Brussels, Chap. III (Public safety and convenience of passage), s. 1 (Crowds, demonstrations, processions).
Article 141ter of the Penal Code prohibits the interpretation of other provisions under Title Iter on terrorist offences that would lead to a breach of freedom of assembly without any justification.
The Alien Act states that the lawful exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly cannot be held against a foreign national to justify his/her return or removal.Act of 15 December 1980 on the entry, stay, permanent residence and removal of aliens, Title I – General Provisions, Chap. VI – Returns and Removals, Art. 20.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
Under Article 37 of the 1992 law on the functioning of the police, any use of force by the police "must be reasonable and proportionate to the objective sought".
The police are empowered to search participants in crowds who pose a real threat to public order.Art. 28, 1992 Act on the Functioning of the Police.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
In a case of absolute necessity, the Belgian police may use firearms where officers "can not defend the persons, posts, transport of dangerous goods, or places entrusted to their protection in any other way".Art. 38, 1992 Law on the Functioning of the Police.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Belgium came before the Human Rights Committee in 2019 but the issue of peaceful assembly was not addressed. Its 2015 and 2021 Universal Periodic Review under the UN Human Rights Council also did not address the right of peaceful assembly.
There has been no case in recent years in the European Court of Human Rights where Belgium has been found to have violated the right of peaceful assembly.
Views of Civil Society
CIVICUS reported in March 2021 that three major protests against racial and class injustice were met with excessive force by police, according to the Belgian League of Human Rights (LDH). Police have been criticised for breaching the right to demonstrate and for the use of disproportionate force. According to the LDH, not only did the police first prohibit one of these protests but (while tolerating the event) also proceeded to intimidate people who may have intended to participate in the demonstration. LDH described a “disproportion of police deployment” which included: riot police, around thirty police vehicles, dogs, cavalry, pumpers, drones and a helicopter. Police also arbitrarily detained people, including minors and several detainees reported having been subject to physical violence or racist and sexist insults and police failed to respect sanitary measures for those arrested.