BRUSSELS — Belgian trade unions and human rights organizations on Thursday demonstrated against draft legislation that would criminalize some protesters.
According to the police, some 7,000 people — with organizers estimating 10,000 — gathered in front of the justice ministry in Brussels to express discontent. Dressed in red, green, and blue — the colors of the country’s largest trade unions — participants unfurled flags and banners with slogans like “Activist, not terrorist” and “Criminal? No, trade unionist,” deeming the law unacceptable.
“I work at Delhaize and I am protesting to keep my right to protest,” said one participant, who was granted anonymity due to fear of reprisals. Delhaize is a Belgian supermarket chain that has been facing frequent and at times heated staff strikes after management announced all its stores will be franchised.
A provision of the so-called Van Quickenborne law, named after Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne who prepared it, would see judges banning rioters from participating in demonstrations. The judges could impose a three- to six-year ban in case of repeated offenses such as vandalism, arson, destruction of property, assault or homicide.
“Those who come to manifestations just to break things, to have fun, throw bricks around and beat up people that have nothing to do with the manifestation as it is — those are the people we want to target,” justice ministry spokesperson Jan Van der Cruysse told POLITICO, adding that the ban could only be imposed with proof that the perpetrator had previously acted illegally at a demonstration.
The concept was born during the COVID-19 pandemic per the suggestion of Brussels Mayor Philippe Close, when violent protests against public health measures rocked Brussels. “They used extreme violence toward police and everything that represents authority,” said the deputy chief of staff at Van Quickenborne’s Cabinet, Paul Van Tigchelt. “They set cars on fire, they destroyed buildings of the European Commission and shops at Sablon,” he added.
But according to critics, any good intention behind the law could easily be turned the wrong direction. Human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Human Rights League are among those opposing the measure, and that participated in the protest on Thursday.
Joeri Thijs, spokesperson for Greenpeace Belgium, told POLITICO that in principle, the group agrees with the idea: “We don’t like riots in protests.” But this proposal will not solve that problem, he said. “Taking away someone’s right to protest is a very fundamental thing to do in a democracy.”
While Thijs is afraid that the law will be abused to target activists and crack down on peaceful protests, trade unions are concerned that “the scope of the law would be so broad as to allow the targeting and repression of demonstrators who do not commit any violence,” their website reads.
Activist groups and trade unions cited possible video surveillance or ID checks at protests as excessive monitoring. Van Tigchelt responded that “Belgium is not a police state.” According to him, the law has thresholds and guarantees to prevent any possible “slippery slope.”
“We are introducing this law to ban the real criminals and to protect the right to protest of the people that are manifesting today,” Van Tigchelt said.
Philippe Hensmans, the director of Amnesty International Belgium, noted that Thursday’s protest did not aim to be big, but rather to put pressure on the government. He pointed out that this law “might be extremely dangerous in the future, with another government.”