Flanders has a long tradition of involvement in human rights issues. The premise that the individual can invoke certain rights from the government is enshrined in documents dating back to the region’s medieval charters. This further makes it clear that human rights cannot be imposed upon sovereign states by international law, but have their basis in a variety of constitutional traditions both here and elsewhere in the world. They reflect the fundamental values of a community; values such as justice, equality, dignity, mutual respect and solidarity.
Not only is the Government of Flanders legally bound by a large number of international treaties on human rights to which Belgium is party; within the remit of its international powers, the government also has largely and explicitly approved these agreements as mixed treaties. Flanders has also frequently been involved in the development of new standards. For Flanders, respect for human rights through its own policies is a legal and ethical obligation.
Better respect of human rights by all states contributes to the development of a more democratic, more peaceful and safer international order. After sixty years, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is still the best international point of reference when it comes to framing national policy aimed at securing the rights and opportunities of all. The UDHR espouses the principles of human dignity, prosperity and peace that lie at the basis of the Charter of the United Nations (UNCharter). These principles are then further developed in the various human rights conventions concluded in the framework of UN and other organisations.
Therefore, human rights are not just an obligation towards a state’s own citizenry, but a guiding principle for foreign policy. Indeed, all states are bound by the fundamental rights and liberties that have since become enshrined in international common law. Most have signed treaties in this area of their own free will. As a result, they are answerable to other states and international organisations when it comes to respecting these same obligations towards their own populations. Given that respect of human rights undeniably leads to greater peace, security and economic and social progress, a proactive international policy on human rights advances the long term interests of Flanders.
In recent years, the universality of human rights has been under pressure. Flanders realises that the interpretation of international human rights is not straightforward, and that there are many cultural differences between the various continents and nations. Power shifts in the world have meant that support for the traditional interpretation of human rights is losing ground. For Flanders, the universality of all human rights is beyond dispute. The debate stretches only to whether and how there might exist room within the universality principle for a degree of cultural and regional variation when interpreting these rights. When it comes to human rights, relativism needs to be out of the question.
The Government of Flanders is concerned by the fact that respect for human rights is increasingly becoming less of a given. Flanders wishes to take action to counter this trend. By virtue of the constitution, it disposes of several means to this policy which include drafting its own, exclusive international treaties and cooperation agreements, participating in the Belgian coordination of multilateral (human rights) institutions, adopting specific positions towards European Union external policy and formulating its development policy via the Flemish Parliament Act.
In Southern Africa, the Government of Flanders supports several human rights institutions and projects, amongst others the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria, the Foundation for Human Rights, the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and several UN institutions working on human rights in the region.