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Responding department: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Also available: Response to the UN Working Group surveys on implementation of the Guiding Principles.

Has your government taken any initiatives to reduce companies’ negative impacts on human rights that you consider particularly successful?

The Government of Belgium, both at the Federal and federated levels, has taken a series of initiatives to improve companies’ impact on promotion and protection of Human Rights in the past, essentially in the framework of CSR policies.

Following the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles in 2011 and the EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy, the Government of Belgium has decided to draw up a National Action Plan specifically focused on Business & Human Rights to address the existing gaps.

A number of administrations are now working on this NAP, that should be completed by early 2015.

A series of steps have already been taken in the process, such as the basis analysis (Gap Analysis/Mapping) and a first stakeholder consultation.

What department or departments have significant responsibility for business and human rights within your government?

The process around the Belgian NAP Business & Human is led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Human Rights Directorate) and the Federal Institute for Sustainable Development (FISD, annexed to the Chancery of the Prime Minister).

The FISD chairs the Interdepartmental Commission for Sustainable Development, in which all federal and regional/community administrations are represented.

Within this commission, the FISD chairs the working group responsible for drafting the NAP Business and Human Rights and other related activities, such as the dialogue with the relevant stakeholders. Other departments involved in this working group include the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Employment, the Ministry of Justice, the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Environment at the federal level, as well as different line ministries at the regional and community levels.

Has your government undertaken new business & human rights initiatives or strengthened existing ones since the endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles in June 2011?

Yes, amongst other things, Belgium has started drafting its NAP Business & Human Rights and has organized a series of colloquia and events to promote this issue at the national level, but also within the EU and at the UN.

What are the top 5 priority issues that your government has taken steps to address since June 2011?

Types of company impacts prioritised:

  • Discrimination
  • Sexual harassment
  • Other core labour rights (including freedom of association & trade union rights)
  • Women’s rights
  • Impacts on children, including child labour

Actions on discrimination

The Belgian Parliament has adopted a number of legislative measures since 2011 that will improve the impact of business on Human Rights in a variety of domains. For example with regard to discrimination between men and women, the Belgian Parliament adopted on April 22 2014 a law to fight the gap in pay between men and women.

A number of guides and trainings have also been developed to sensitize and inform individuals and companies on this issue.

Has your government adopted a National Action Plan on business and human rights as encouraged by the UN Human Rights Council and UN Working Group on business & human rights, or will it do so in the future?

Cf. answer to question 1 above.

With regards to CSR, Belgium has adopted its first CSR action plan in 2006. The latter was updated in 2010. A new update is foreseen in the framework of the upcoming NAP on Business & Human Rights.

If your government has adopted a National Action Plan or is planning on adopting one, please highlight whether it makes reference to international human rights standards and whether it was developed in consultation with affected stakeholders.

 Yes (cf. above).

Stakeholders (business, civil society, unions) have been consulted in the preliminary phases and further consultations are foreseen down the road.

Access to remedy: What steps have been taken to develop new judicial or administrative remedies or to reduce barriers to existing remedies for victims?

Individuals, groups or organisations who wish to file a complaint against companies concerning human rights violations committed in Belgium can address such complaints to the local courts. Recent legislation has made “class action” suits more easily accessible in a number of cases.

Belgium is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights and as a member of the EU is dedicated to the values entrenched in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Belgium recognizes the decisions in this regard, whether they emanate from the EU Court of Justice in Luxemburg or the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg.

Belgium has also ratified the Rome Statute and recognizes the International Criminal Court.

Belgium is also a signatory to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, and has made the necessary legislative amendments to its Criminal Code to ensure extraterritorial competences for the Belgian judiciary on corruption by Belgian companies outside of the country, in accordance with its OECD commitments.

Finally, in 1993 Belgium has adopted legislation on extraterritoriality with regard to the most serious violations of international humanitarian law. This law also enables individuals to file complaints against companies when serious crimes are committed outside of Belgium, provided certain criteria are met.

Access to remedy: What steps have been taken to develop new non-judicial remedies, improve existing mechanisms, and reduce barriers for victims?

Belgium was one of the first signatories of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (1976) and has an OECD contact point since 1980.

Moreover, Belgium has ratified the main international Human Rights treaties and recognizes the investigation and individual complaint mechanisms under all the Human Rights treaties that it has ratified, including the complaints mechanism of the International Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.

Access to remedy: For companies headquartered in your country or their subsidiaries, has your government taken steps to enhance accountability for human rights impacts abroad?

[See response to actions on judicial remedies here.]

Which factors impede your government’s ability to take action on business and human rights?

Significant factors are:

  • Lack of resources for enforcement, monitoring and prosecution
  • Lack of understanding or awareness of business & human rights in government
  •  Challenges of coordinating across government departments

Minor factors are:

  •  Opposition or lack of consensus within government
  • Opposition by economic interest groups or business associations

What, if any, form of support would your government welcome the most to help advance its actions to improve companies’ impacts on human rights?

Support to convince other countries to draft and reinforce their own legislation with regards to Human Rights and create a level playing field in this respect.

Our experience has taught us that the process of writing a NAP on Business and Human Rights was also a strong catalyst in this regard, as well as a useful means of sensitizing both government, business and civil society to the issues at hand.

In that perspective, we will encourage our partners to also draw up their own NAP’s, in a transparent and inclusive way, keeping in mind the need to consult with the relevant stakeholders.

Please share with us any further comments, including ideas for future collaboration and shared learning to advance business & human rights.