Jozef De Witte, Director of the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (Belgium)
6 July 2009
1. What are
the main activities of the Belgian Centre of Equal
Opportunities and Opposition to Racism?
The centre is a public
service at national level, taking care of everything
that has to do with diversity except for gender and
language related issues.
The centre has three main tasks. Firstly, the prevention of
discrimination through courses and advice. Among others, we provide courses for police officers, HR departments of companies and the real estate sector.
Secondly, we also react to
discrimination offences by responding to every report
of discrimination and looking for a solution. Preferably,
we come to this solution through mediation but in the
worst case we take the complaint to the court. Finally, the centre draws up recommendations and advice for the government.
2. How do you assess the level of discrimination in
There's quite a lot of racism in Belgium. The number of
reported discrimination offences is proof of this. Every
year we get around 1,000 to 1,500 reports on racist
discrimination. Research on racist issues in Belgium
shows a rather depressing result as well. And as to
representation of ethnic minorities on the workfloor,
Belgium is the worst in Europe. Nowhere in Europe are
there so few people with minority backgrounds in the
workforce as in Belgium.
3. How would you assess the acceptance of cultural
diversity in Belgium?
There's still a lot of work to do, particularly in
Flanders – the Dutch-speaking region. We were confronted
with diversity only very late here, leading to the main
opinion on this issue being ''adopt our habits or get
out of here.'' This bias was found in the recruiting
strategy of the Belgian police. Those who proved to be
closest to the average on most issues, were most likely
to be hired…not exactly a celebration of diversity.
4. In your view, how can the Belgian government best
To start with, there should be a strong legal framework.
In the meantime, Belgium has developed several strong
laws and there are a lot of good
initiatives but these laws still need to be known. One
example is a recent legal case in which the judge in the
court was not aware of the existence of the renewed
anti-discrimination law of 2007. This should change. The
main task of the government is to set clear boundaries -
''this is discrimination and it is unacceptable.'' A lot
of people still think they can get away with
discrimination. Also victims of discrimination should be
aware of their rights so they can stand up for them.
5. How have cultural organisations and political groups
responded to the challenges posed by discrimination?
Cultural organisations have responded by making
anti-discrimination a theme and by mainstreaming it into
the whole organisation. The political groups however
show a very different picture. Some speak out very
strongly against discrimination and are promoting
diversity whilst other groups try to get strong support
through addressing feelings of fear and– publicly or
hidden – using racist language.
6. What is the role of the media in matters relating to
diversity in Belgium?
It is obvious that the media play an important role.
There are three main things journalists can pay
attention to. First of all, they can ask themselves the
question why it would be relevant to mention the
background or nationality of the people they report
about. Secondly they can try to make sure that the
guests they invite for TV or radio programmes, or the
actors that play in TV-series, echo a good
representation of society. And finally they can adopt a
conscious strategy of hiring people, looking at
diversity and avoiding that people from ethnic minority
backgrounds only work on integration issues.
7. How can the Council of Europe's 'Speak Out Against
Discrimination' campaign help in the fight against
racism in Europe?
Raising awareness is a big issue and it will always be
one because the fight for more respect for diversity and
against discrimination is never completely - nor for
eternity - won. We must keep stressing the fact that
Europe has always been a diverse continent and that
exactly that diversity has made it into what it is now.
8. What challenges and obstacles lie ahead in the fight
against discrimination in Europe?
The EU already has a legal framework that goes in the
right direction. Now these laws need to be put into
practice, both in the EU member states as in all other
European countries. The non-EU-member states of the
Council of Europe can take full inspiration out of the
EU laws. Finally employment, housing and education
remain the main issues which need action in order to
9. Looking to the future, what are the prospects for
improved community relations in Belgium?
Research shows very clearly that adolescents are more
open to diversity and no longer judge a person on the
basis of colour, background or nationality. This gives
hope for the future. On the other hand the financial
crisis is a heavy burden. When talking about employees
with ethnic-minority backgrounds, we often come across
the LIFO-principle – Last in First Out. This means that
people from minorities only get hired when there are no
'natives' available, and that by consequence they are
also the first to get fired in a crisis.