Member in the Spotlight: Liga voor Mensenrechten (League for Human Rights)
Liga voor Mensenrechten (League for Human Rights) focuses on the balance between freedom and security; the rights of prisoners; privacy; and non-discrimination. The organisation has a strong track record with respect to privacy, including government surveillance, counterterrorism and policing.
This is the sixteenth article of the series “EDRi member in the Spotlight” in which our members have the opportunity to introduce themselves and their work in depth.
Today we introduce our member from Belgium – Liga voor Mensenrechten (League for Human Rights).
1. Who are you and what is your organisation’s goal and mission?
The Liga voor Mensenrechten (‘the Liga’, translated as the League for Human Rights) is a Belgian human rights NGO, focusing on Flanders and Brussels.
We raise support for human rights and prevent human rights violations in Belgium. We do this by raising awareness of human rights, mobilising our supporters, advocating in favour of human rights at the political level, and undertaking strategic litigation. We work on human rights in general in Belgium, but focus on four specific issues: the balance between freedom and security; the rights of prisoners; privacy; and non-discrimination. We are a broad human rights movement, and have a strong track record with respect to privacy, including government surveillance, counterterrorism and policing.
2. How did it all begin, and how did your organisation develop its work?
The Liga was founded in 1979, with roots in 1901. The first Belgian Liga – the Ligue Belge des Droits de l’Homme – was founded in 1901, as a reaction to the Dreyfus-affaire in France at the end of the 19th century. Its goal was to honour and spread the ideas of the Enlightenment, leading to a strong focus on individual rights. The Liga was however forced to suspend its activities during WWI and WWII.
In 1954, a group of Brussels-based lawyers took the initiative to revive the Liga, which became the Ligue Belge pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme. This Ligue focused on the human rights texts adopted after the Second World War, primarily the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. It is now a Ligue of principles, fighting for equal access to human rights for all.
Due to the federal state structure that was gradually introduced in Belgium, the organisation split up in the late ‘70s into the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme on the Francophone side and the Liga voor Mensenrechten on the Flemish side. We have been working independently ever since, but have collaborated on issues of federal competence.
The Liga has always been enthusiastically supported by volunteers and human rights defenders. Throughout our history, we have remained an organisation with a knowledgeable reputation with respect to human rights. We have always worked on issues concerning privacy, evolving along with new technologies and thus new challenges.
In 2021, we will again strengthen the ties between the Flemish Liga and the Francophone Ligue. We have just ended a successful crowdfunding campaign for our soon-to-be opened House for Human Rights in the heart of Brussels, where our two organisations will again cohabitate and collaborate more deeply.
3. The biggest opportunity created by advancements in information and communication technology is…
Technology has given citizens more opportunities for easier and more equal access to information. This has enabled us all to disseminate a broader range of opinions and to document and subsequently challenge instances of grave human rights violations. It has also offered more opportunities for civil society organisations to permeate public opinion and develop new ways of driving humanity forwards through online activism.
4. The biggest threat created by advancements in information and communication technology is…
Control. As new technologies make our lives more convenient, they also strip us of the possibility to be exposed to things that are not within our comfort zone. It impedes us from being exposed to opinions that we don’t like, or to information that does not confirm our own biases. In more extreme instances, technology makes choices for us. This ultimately leads to control of our thoughts and our actions, and runs the risk of stripping us from our free will.
5. Which are the biggest victories/successes/achievements of your organisation?
The Liga has a long tradition of litigation for human rights. One of the most famous cases was the one brought against organisations supporting Vlaams Blok – an extreme-right political party in Flanders. The courts decided that the pamphlets these organisations were distributing violated the antiracism laws. As a result, Vlaams Blok was considered a racist party and was shut down. It later reinvented itself as Vlaams Belang.
The Liga also brought together a case against data retention before the Belgian Constitutional Court. This case went up to the European Court of Justice which found data retention in violation of our right to privacy. The law was however slightly adapted and again voted in Belgium, prompting the Liga to again file a case before the Constitutional Court. On the 8th of October 2020, the Court of Justice again found that retaining metadata on all citizens in Belgium violated their right to privacy. Only time will tell if we can expect a data retention III case in the future.
The Liga also organises an annual award ceremony for the Prize for Human Rights. This prize is granted to a person or organisation that has brought a positive influence to the state of human rights in Belgium that year. The award has been given to a wide array of causes, from organisations working for refugees (like vzw Humain and gastvrij Lint), to organisations working for the most vulnerable (like Moeders voor Moeders and Jihad van de Moeders), to persons working on bridging gaps in our societies (like imam Khalid Benhaddou and Prof. Gerrit Loots). The award ceremony always attracts media attention and enables the Liga to shine a light on individuals and organisations offering a positive example of human rights put into practice.
We also pride ourselves in our communication, policy and education work, through which we aim to spread the message of human rights and foster an environment favourable to them. We are a voice that is widely heard in public debates about human rights – certainly with respect to privacy and policing. We are regularly interviewed or quoted in media outlets, we are a popular guest at events that want to include human rights and we are frequently asked for our input by the Flemish and federal parliament when laws are discussed. One of our main successes running up to the federal elections of 2019 was the wide dissemination of our privacy app. This was an online tool where we informed the public through a scripted chat conversation about several policies and practices that are already infringing on their right to privacy and measures that were on the table for the future. At the end of the application, users could send an email to all political parties urging them to take our privacy into account. This app became very popular. As a result many emails were sent and we managed to have a conversation about privacy with various major political parties.
Lastly, another big success is the Liga’s continuous efforts to bring together enthusiastic expert-volunteers and drawing from their expertise to better human rights in Belgium. Some of the country’s top (legal, sociological, political,…) brains have been involved with the Liga and have driven forward progress in terms of fundamental rights, be it through policy work, communication efforts, knowledge sharing or even via strategic litigation. As long as we are able to keep this up, privacy – and human rights in general – will not die in Belgium.
6. If your organisation could now change one thing in your country, what would that be?
We hope that we can take away one positive lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic: the importance of evidence-based, multidisciplinary and well thought-through policymaking that takes into account the safety and wellbeing of all persons residing in Belgium.
7. What is the biggest challenge your organisation is currently facing in your country?
A general lack of understanding of the importance of human rights as a guiding frame for decision-making. Human rights are sometimes seen as obstacles to finding solutions, while they offer a guidebook for finding solutions that respect the dignity of all.
8. How can one get in touch with you if they want to help as a volunteer, or donate to support your work?
Our contact details are here, you can always get in touch with us if you would be interested in donating time or expertise to our work. If you would like to show your support for human rights in Belgium and back us in our fight for Belgians’ freedoms, it is also possible to become a member via this link.
Lastly, we appreciate any donation in support of our mission and work. We use these donations to spread our message far and wide, to reach policy makers, to develop new educational tools and to support litigation work.
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