Belgium condemned by European Committee of Social Rights for failure of inclusive education for children with intellectual disabilities

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On Wednesday, February 3, 2021, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) made public its decision regarding the complaint brought by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Inclusion Europe v. Belgium alleging that by failing to make sufficient efforts to promote the inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities in mainstream primary and secondary education provided in schools attached to the French Community (Wallonia-Brussels Federation), Belgium has failed to comply with the obligations resulting from Articles 15 (the right of persons with disabilities to independence, social integration and participation in the life of the community) and 17 (the right of children and young persons to social, legal and economic protection) of the revised European Social Charter.

Following a lengthy procedure that took over 4 years to conclude, the ECSR ruled in favour of the complainant organisations and condemned Belgium, and specifically the French Community schools (Wallonia-Brussels Federation) for its lack of efforts made for the educational inclusion of pupils with intellectual disabilities, highlighting that « the arguments put forward by Belgium to justify the continuation of separate education for pupils with an intellectual disability, namely their interests and also those of children without disabilities, demonstrate that Belgium is far from the change in attitudes and ending of prejudices needed to achieve respect for the right to inclusive education. »

The ESCR unanimously found Belgium in clear violation of the revised European Social Charter, a view shared by both the General Delegate for the Rights of the Child (DGDE) and the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism and Discrimination (Unia) who put forward their observations in favour of the complainants. The ESCR condemned Belgium for violating Article 15§1 of the revised European Social Charter on the ground that "the right to inclusive education of children with intellectual disabilities is not effectively guaranteed in the French Community in Belgium" and Article 17§2 on the ground that "children with intellectual disabilities do not have an effective right to an inclusive education in the French Community."

FIDH and partner organisations to the claim, alongside FIDH’s member organisation in Belgium the ’Ligue des Droits Humains’ (LDH - Human Rights League), held a press conference on February 3 detailing the case and the demands that should now be met posthaste by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. Along with a tailor-made educational budget for affected students and their families, the organisations call for the French Community to adopt a transition plan towards an inclusive school with clear deadlines and concrete indicators; take students with intellectual disabilities unambiguously into account in all provisions aimed at making the school system more inclusive; provide incentives to support schools developing a real inclusive policy; integrate tutoring by competent professionals and strengthen teacher training to include a short course in orthopedagogy. Belgian Education Minister Caroline Désir, attending the press conference, publicly committed to implementing the Committee’s decision and translating these calls into action.

FIDH and its Belgian member organisation LDH have long been advocating for a more inclusive policy towards people with disabilities in Belgium, including by filing another lawsuit against Belgium before the same Committee in 2011, in relation to highly dependent disabled people’s right to access reception facilities and accommodation. On that occasion too, the ECSR condemned Belgium for violating disabled people’s rights under the European Social Charter.

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