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  • Writer's pictureLesley Davis

Bruxelles, I Love/Hate You (Part Deux)

a picture of a bronze statue-fountain of a small boy peeing. This is the symbol of Brussels and can be seen all over the city.
Maneken Pis. The Peeing Boy of Brussels. (I don't know why.)

As one American friend said to me about the poor state of accessibility in Brussels, "but Belgium signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities! Don't they have to be accessible?" It is a reasonable assumption, and one that I also held for a few blissful moments before I became engaged with a research project mapping countries' compliance with the UNCRPD. Now, I answer jadedly, "Well, Angola and Cambodia signed and even ratified the Convention, too, and do you think their cities are models of accessibility?" And, just this week I learned of another shocking-but-shouldn't-be discriminatory thing: China openly discriminates against people with disabilities, including people with a history of disability (like previously having cancer), in hiring. China, too, is signatory to the UNCRPD.


In short, all politics is local (even hyper-local) and this is especially true when the issue is disability rights, equity, and accessibility.


In order for a treaty or convention like the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to make any difference in the lives of the people it is meant to protect and promote, a number of things have to happen. The signing of the treaty is a largely symbolic first step. I would even say that national governments feel a certain peer pressure to sign on to various rights-based treaties so that they can signal to the rest of the world that they should be regarded as being on the right side of history. Think of the fact that the United Nations has 193 member states, all of which have an obligation to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then think of the genocides of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Yazidis in northern Iraq, and the Uyghurs in western China, all UN member states. An international treaty or convention is only as strong as its incorporation into domestic law and the related enforcement mechanisms in any given country. The UN explains it well here: "Through ratification of international human rights treaties, Governments undertake to put into place domestic measures and legislation compatible with their treaty obligations and duties. The domestic legal system, therefore, provides the principal legal protection of human rights guaranteed under international law." [emphasis mine].

a map of the world with blue, red and yellow colors indicating which countries have signed (yellow), signed and ratified (blue), and signed, ratified and adopted the Optional Protocol of the UNCRPD. Most countries are red or blue, but the US is only yellow.
Countries' status with regard to the UNCRPD

The real action in terms of protecting human rights, which of course includes the rights of women, children, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized or vulnerable group, happens at the second and third steps; i.e., at the national and local levels. To find out what these national and local efforts look like in different countries, there are a few excellent resources. The Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) does a great job at corralling international laws that include anti-discrimination and disability rights protections by country. At the national level Belgium, for example, has a 2007 anti-discrimination law meant to address racism and xenophobia, though it does not mention disability specifically. The UN's Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) has a dashboard tool for viewing which countries have signed, ratified and declared which international human rights treaties. The OHCHR website also hosts a UN Treaty Body Database in which you can look up all the reports that countries have to submit regularly to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the committee that monitors the implementation of of the UNCRPD) to show what steps they have taken to incorporate their obligations under the treaty into national and local law. I think of these reports like the ADA's requirement of periodic "transition plans" at the state and municipal level.


The most compelling part of the UN reporting process is that, in addition to official, government reports (which naturally point out all the progress that has been made or , more often, is anticipated), there are also "alternative" and much more critical reports submitted by national disability organizations. In the case of Belgium,'s most recent submission (2019-20) the Belgian Disability Forum submitted an alternative report that points out that in the area of accessibility (Article 9 of the UNCRPD), rules for buildings and public spaces specify that new building construction and significant modification respect the regional regulations on accessibility. However, the regulations are rarely enforced "due to a lack of control and/or sanction: there are no deadlines for compliance or sanctions in the event of non-compliance." Furthermore, and this is a significant obstacle in all EU countries, there is the incompatibility of accessibility regulations with regulations relating to the preservation of heritage. Often, a building's classification as a "heritage" building is used to justify its non-compliance with accessibility regulations.

a green, yellow orange an purple map delineating Belgium's regions and provinces. The upper half is the Flemish region and the lower half is Wallonia, the French-speaking region.
Map of Belgium's administrative regions

When you read the Belgian government's official report submission from 2020, you glean a sense of just how unwieldy it is to enact law in a federal system. In the area of building accessibility and public transportation, for example, the Flemish region (Dutch-speaking), the Wallonnian region (French-speaking), the Germanophone Community (in the east), the Brussels-Capital region, and the French Community are all administrative units or bodies that have some purview over these things in their individual regions. We can read that the STIB, the public transportation authority for Brussels, has a ten-year strategic plan that aims to make 70 tram stops accessible, install elevators in two metro stations per year, and ensure greater availability of bus ramps in the capital by 2030. The report also touts a Brussels-Capital region plan that endeavored to make outdoor public spaces accessible, and included an accessibility survey of 3600 km of sidewalks. The report states that "accessibility works based on these plans are done each time there is a redevelopment and during the maintenance of sidewalks." So, much like in the United States, making a public right-of-way that isn't accessible into one that is usually requires some kind of trigger. In the case of Brussels, that trigger is that the sidewalk requires maintenance for some other reason, or a whole area is going to be torn up and redeveloped. One might be tempted to instigate a clandestine effort involving jackhammers to make thousands of kilometers of Brussels sidewalks undeniably requiring of immediate maintenance...


One can see from these reports and also in person that the Flemish region of Belgium, as well as neighboring Netherlands, are making greater headway than the Brussels-Capital region and the Wallonnia region when it comes to the accessibility of the built environment and public transportation. Yes, both Belgium and the Netherlands ratified the same treaty, but ratifying the UNCRPD doesn't come with a sackful of Euros to spend on nation-wide implementation. How a country/region/municipality prioritizes the rights of persons with disabilities is key to funding the steps that need to be taken toward the equity and inclusion objectives in the UNCRPD.


My personal hypothesis about Brussels is that, much like Washington, DC, Brussels attracts lots of young professionals who come there from elsewhere in Europe to work for various EU government bodies and EU-related NGOs. The Brussels metro region has around 2 million inhabitants, and more than 120,000 of them work directly for EU and related institutions. In addition, there are more than 20,000 lobbyists, 950 journalists and 5,400 diplomats in residence. It is a vibrant, international city full of professional transients who may be less invested in this country where they happen to work than the people who have always called Brussels home. While legions of very committed people may spend their days advocating for the rights of everything and everyone from pharmaceutical companies to Ukrainian refugees, the focus of this massive advocacy-heavy workforce is not to advocate for the sidewalks of Brussels--maybe to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities in the EU (like the European Disability Forum does spectacularly well), but the accessibility of Brussels' sidewalks, metros and cafes is generally not in their purview.


In short, it is not the EU's job to make Brussels accessible; it's Brussels' job. Just like anywhere else, even Washington, DC, it is groups of citizens organizing, advocating and demanding that the state, region or municipality commit the funds to this priority over another. Such citizen organizations do exist in Brussels, as I learned from Emiliano Deferrari, an Italian board member of the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) living in Brussels. He is a member of a citizens' accessibility council in his adopted neighborhood of Ixelles. Can you guess where the largest number of accessible sidewalks, cafes and public spaces in Brussels can be found? Ixelles (or XL, as I saw written everywhere and it took me way too long to get the pun).


Three men in suits standing on an underground metro platform
Mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karacsony (at right), with the former mayor and the CEO of the Budapest transport authority (BKV)

But what if a newer, poorer EU member state like Hungary or Romania doesn't have the money to prioritize basic public services, much less accessible ones? Indeed, EU membership has its privileges, and this is a big one. One of the limited ways the European Commission can insert accessibility into national-level planning and development is through the public procurement process and the use of a suite of European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF). If a city like Budapest wants money to build a new metro line or buy some new metro cars for an existing line, European Structural Funds, European Regional Development Funds, and other EU funds can be applied for relatively easily. But there's a catch: the new metro line must be fully accessible if Budapest wants the money. The new metro cars must be accessible, lowered-floor cars that have at least some accessible stations at which to stop. This is how Budapest got a fully accessible new metro line 4 and added new accessible cars and a few accessible stations to metro lines 2 and 3. Also, the great majority of Budapest's bus fleet is lowered-floor with ramps, and five of its tram lines are completely or partially accessible. Budapest still has to spend plenty of its own money on these projects, but the big money, the money that will make a large project possible at all, has requirements.


Does the fact that Budapest's public transportation system is more accessible than many western European capitals' systems mean that Hungary prioritizes the rights of persons with disabilities more than other EU countries do? Hardly. It means that in order for an EU country to develop its infrastructure, it needs financial help, and that help comes with EU strings attached that luckily benefit people with disabilities. This coupling of funding + accessibility is due to the advocacy efforts, in Brussels, of organizations like the European Disability Forum. This doesn't make Budapest's path to developing more accessible public transport disingenuous. In fact, the mayor of Budapest is publicly very supportive of disability rights and accessibility, and he is a smart politician who pursued funding that would both develop his city's infrastructure and benefit Disabled people. Unfortunately for Brussels, Belgium is a relatively wealthy country that does not garner as much EU funding as a country with a lower GDP and standard of living. This means that decisions like making public transport more accessible in the Brussels-Capital region need to be prioritized and largely self-funded by the region, rather than being a welcome by-product of large blocks of EU funding.



       Poster has a blue and pink design in the center resembling an arrow. The lower left has a quote in light gray. It reads, "nations decay / only the citizen critical and loving can bring them back to life. John W Gardner.

As this 1971 Common Cause poster that hangs in my office, a quote by the statesman and social reformer John W. Gardner immortalized by Sister Mary Corita Kent reads, "Nations decay. Only the citizen, critical and loving, can bring them back to life."


Brussels, Budapest and even Bloomington, Indiana need their critical and loving citizens to keep the heat turned up if the promise of anti-discrimination legislation and human rights treaties are going to be realized in our lifetimes.


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