Joining forces for a National Action Plan Against Racism in Belgium
Back in 2001, at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, Belgium had committed to develop a national action plan against racism. However, almost two decades later, Belgium still has no such action plan. Now, a nationwide civil society coalition is on a mission to ensure a National Action Plan Against Racism (NAPAR) is finally adopted.
There have been attempts in the past years to make progress on this issue. For instance, in 2013, a platform to combat racism was created in the French-speaking part of the country to develop a framework for the fight against racism, as well as an operational action plan. However, the platform only managed to establish a framework before being dissolved in 2017.
Reasons for the failure of this platform included the fact that organisations representing minority communities did not feel sufficiently listened to and tensions around the recognition of the legitimacy of the fight against Islamophobia.
The birth of a nationwide coalition for a national action plan against racism
In Flanders, civil society organisations started to join forces in 2016 to put pressure on policy and decision makers to adopt an action plan against racism. However, the Flemish organisations quickly realised that the implementation of an inter-federal plan required cooperation with French-speaking civil society organisations.
In February 2018, a first meeting was therefore organised by the Flemish organisations and ENAR to which French-speaking organisations were invited. This was an opportunity to brainstorm with them and share respective concerns.
This nascent NAPAR coalition, made up of over 50 civil society organisations from both the Walloon and Flemish parts of Belgium [[Current members of the coalition are:
ACLI Vlaanderen vzw, ACOD cultuur, ACV-CSC, AIF+ vzw, Asbl Objectif – mouvement pour l’égalité des droits, Asbl Union, Balkan LGBTQIA+, Bamko asbl, BePax, Beweging.net, BOEH!, Bruxelles Panthères, Les Cannelles asbl, CBAI asbl, Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en Belgique asbl, Collectif Féminin Kahina, Een Andere Joodse Stem, ella vzw | Kenniscentrum gender en etniciteit, ENAR Europe, ENAR Belgium, Federatie van Marokkaanse Verenigingen, FENIKS vzw, Furia, Hand in Hand tegen racisme vzw, Hand-in-Hand Gent, Hart boven Hard, Internationaal Comité vzw, Job@Ubuntu, Karamah EU, Kif Kif vzw, Le Collectif Mémoire Coloniale de Lutte contre les Discriminations, Le Monde des Possibles – Liège, Liga voor Mensenrechten, Ligue des droits de l’Homme, Merhaba vzw, Minderhedenforum, Mouvement Ouvrier Chrétien, MRAX, Mwinda Kitoko, Netwerk tegen Armoede, ORBIT vzw, Platform Allochtone Jeugdwerkingen, RainbowHouse, Réseau de Soutien aux Victimes Brésiliennes de la Violence Domestique, RIMO Limburg vzw, RoSa vzw, Samenlevingsopbouw sector, School zonder Racisme vzw, SEER, SHARE (Forum des Migrants), Tayush, Union des Progressistes Juifs de Belgique, Vie féminine, VZW Jakoeboe – Welzijnsschakel Vluchtelingen Oostende, Welzijnszorg.]], drafted 11 proposals for a national action plan against racism, which were presented to parliamentarians of all Belgian government levels[[Belgium is a federal state composed, in addition to the federal government, of 3 regions and 3 communities, each with their respective parliament and government.]] in May 2018. These proposals covered main areas of competence at federal level, such as the police, the justice system, hate crime, employment, etc.
Following the launch of these proposals, the coalition became more structured, and elected a coordination team and established rules of procedure. All member organisations meet at least four times a year, while five member organisations coordinate the coalition and meet much more regularly. The coalition mainly engages in advocacy work and meetings with political parties, parliamentarians, ministerial offices, ministers, etc.
This coalition owes its success to a continuous and complementary collaboration between ‘mainstream’ and established anti-racism organisations and trade unions on the one hand, and more recent organisations led by victims of racism themselves. The fact that these organisations, between which there have been some tensions in the past, are able to work together and join forces is one of the main strengths of the coalition.
The coalition aims to ensure that the structural aspects of racism are taken into account in a future national action plan against racism.
What we have achieved
The NAPAR coalition has achieved some milestones towards the adoption of a national action plan against racism.
At federal level, Kris Peeters, the Minister in charge of Equal Opportunities, asked for an inventory of the measures already taken and the measures that need to be taken at the federal level with a view to adopting a national plan against racism. He also asked the regions and communities to do the same.
At regional level, although the Walloon and Flemish regions have not yet reacted to the coalition’s requests, the Brussels Region published a first plan to combat racism in March 2019. Although this plan is in fact only an inventory of measures taken during the current legislative mandate, the Secretary of State has foreseen an impact assessment of Brussels’ anti-discrimination legislation in order to prepare the work of the next government. She has also committed to establishing a structured dialogue between civil society organisations, the administration and the government to ensure a follow-up of the plan.
In addition, at the request of the Federal Government, the administration of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation has launched an inventory of measures to be implemented.
With regard to political parties, the NAPAR coalition has requested and obtained meetings with all the French- and Dutch-speaking political parties that currently sit in the various federal, regional and community parliaments, with the exception of the Mouvement Réformateur (MR) and DéFI, to present our 11 proposals. As a result, most political parties have committed in their programmes to implement an inter-federal plan to combat racism.
One of the main objectives of the coalition is to ensure that structural racism is addressed, and this is one of the strong points of the coalition and also the common denominator among a diverse and varied membership. So far, public policies have only focused on direct and individual manifestations of racism such as hate crimes, but the coalition aims to ensure that the structural aspects of racism are taken into account in a future national action plan against racism.
The internal ‘democracy’ of the coalition is also determining in the sustainability of this joint civil society effort. All the coalition’s members are involved in defining priorities and objectives, but also in the implementation of plans, including advocacy work and meetings with politicians.
Another crucial element for success is to ensure that the coalition does not reproduce the power dynamics that it denounces in its way of working and functioning, by paying particular attention to organisations representing racialised groups. In practice this means reaching a balance between organisations composed of volunteers and those receiving subsidies and composed of professionals, between organisations working on the ground and those working in the second line, between organisations made up of people of colour and those composed mainly of white people.
The coalition owes its success to a continuous and complementary collaboration between ‘mainstream’ and established anti-racism organisations and trade unions on the one hand, and more recent organisations led by victims of racism themselves.
A challenge for the coalition is that it does not have dedicated financial and human resources, which means that the coordination team must sometimes make difficult choices as to what to prioritise, whether with regard to content, internal development of the coalition, involvement of members, etc.
As a result of the important advocacy work and united front shown by the NAPAR coalition, there is good hope that the Belgian government will adopt a national action plan against racism in the near future. However, a major future challenge for the implementation of an inter-federal action plan against racism is the fact that it will have to involve both the federal state and the various bodies at regional and community levels. As the federal state has no authority over these separate bodies, which have different powers and responsibilities as regards policy areas, a consensus will need to be reached between all these stakeholders, each with their own government and parliaments.
At this very moment, following the federal, regional and community elections in Belgium on 26 May, political parties are negotiating to form new governments. In the next weeks and months, the NAPAR coalition will aim to ensure that every new government – at federal, regional and community level – includes the adoption of an action plan against racism in their policy agreement, and make sure that an effective action plan is developed and implemented. The high score of the far-right party Vlaams Belang in Flanders in the elections only deepens the sense of urgency to tackle structural racism. The coalition hopes the other political parties will fully understand this pressing need, instead of copying far-right policies in an ineffective attempt to win back its electorate.
The authors are part of the coordination committee for the NAPAR coalition.