Behind the scenes at the Security Council

Belgium is halfway through its two-year term as a member of the UN Security Council. What exactly does our country do there?

  1. Last updated on
World leaders at the Security Council

The 41st floor of the Dag Hammarskjöld building in New York. It gives a wide view over eastern Manhattan, among other places. But the Belgian ‘Permanent Representation to the UN’ does not have much time for gazing out of the window.

Since January 2019, Belgium has been a member of the UN Security Council (see history box). That means a packed-full diary and a whole pile of documents to go through. The building – named after the UN Secretary-General who died during a mission to the DR Congo in 1961 – is certainly well-located. The UN Headquarters is only 5 minutes away. The UN Security Council meets there almost daily from 10am to 1pm, and sometimes from 3pm to 6pm or longer too.

Because the world – with all its conflicts – never sleeps, nor does the Security Council. With that said, there are normally no sessions at the weekend, nor indeed at Thanksgiving, for example. But even then, the Permanent Representation must be ready for new and unexpected conflicts.

Belgian flag and flag for UN Security Council

View from the window on the 41st floor where the Belgian Permanent Representation is housed; on the windowsill, a flag of the Security Council campaign.. © FOD BZ/SPF AE

New York, Brussels and the posts

The Belgian Permanent Representative – or ambassador – is currently Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve. He represents the voice of Belgium on the Security Council. In his absence, his deputy Karen Van Vlierberge stands in for him. A second deputy – Jeroen Cooreman – monitors the General Assembly. The trio leads a team of 22 diplomats, each with their own expertise. There is also a military attaché with two staff who follow the “peacekeeping” section from a defence perspective. These include the famous UN peace missions, in which Belgium also participates.

The team meets daily at 8:30am to run through the programme for the day. The statements are re-read and the latest details are hammered out. Everything has to be perfect! The Permanent Representative himself, of course, has very little free time during the day. Lunch is often a working lunch, where he can discuss themes in a more informal manner. Sometimes there are receptions after the afternoon session, where further important information can be exchanged. He does not get the chance to read his e-mails until the evening.

Staff members in morning meeting at Belgian Permanent Representation NY

The morning meeting of the Belgian Permanent Representation in New York. © FOD BZ/SPF AE

6 diplomats at the FPS Foreign Affairs in Brussels will also be following affairs from closer to home. By and large, the team in New York can be viewed as positing the initial Belgian position within the Security Council, which Brussels will then finalise. The Minister's policy unit is continually sounded out on this as a matter of course.

But the Belgian embassies – the “posts” in the jargon – also play a prominent role. After all, it is they who report in from the ground. This is the only way for Belgium to succeed in formulating well-founded standpoints, wherever a problem occurs in the world.

A seat in the cockpit

In short, membership of the Security Council takes quite a lot of effort. Why is this so important to our country?

‘As a member, Belgium has a seat in the world's cockpit,’ says Charly Poppe, a diplomat in Brussels. ‘This gives us the right to contribute to decisions that are binding upon all member states and that are extremely important for those countries in crisis.’ Our country is not so much seeking prestige, but is mainly interested in having its voice heard in order to work towards a more peaceful world. In doing so, it opts for political solutions above the use of violence. The emphasis is laid on preventing conflicts.

A more peaceful world is naturally in the interests of a small, open country such as Belgium too, which is “a small fish in a big pond”. That is why our country has always been a fervent supporter of regional collaboration and ‘multi-lateralism’: searching for solutions along with other countries via international institutions.

Poppe sees further interests in this too. ‘As a member of the Security Council, our diplomats our playing in the premier league. This further hones their expertise. The membership also significantly raises our country's diplomatic visibility for 2 years. That opens doors across the globe.’

Highly valued

Belgium is highly valued in diplomatic circles. Poppe: ‘At the end of the day, we're no rookie. Belgium became a member as early as 1947 – shortly after the Security Council was founded. In the meantime, this will now be the 6th time we have held a representative seat. Throughout this time, we have been building up a solid diplomatic network and we have a strong presence in Africa. People know that our standpoints are well-founded. Belgium is also reliable and takes a firm line.’ Belgian diplomats are good listeners and are skilled at searching for creative solutions.

‘The interest from the international press is also noteworthy,’ says Vincent Willekens, a press officer in New York. ‘When we're not a member of the UN Security Council, the international press shows little interest in Belgium's standpoints and activities. But now, we're organising a press briefing for the international media every 6 weeks. The last one was attended by 44 journalists.’

Ambassador Pecsteen to the Security Council

Ambassador Pecsteen is requesting the floor at a Security Council meeting. © FOD BZ/SPF AE

Permanent members

Belgium may well be very active in the Security Council – but what can it really achieve? After all, it is largely the 5 permanent members (see box and figure) that determine what ends up on the agenda. They – or France, the United Kingdom and the US, anyway – will generally hold the pen for resolutions. ‘So they will provide the orientation for the zero draft and negotiate around it,’ says Poppe.

They also hold a “right to veto”. That means they can obstruct a resolution. Poppe: ‘Naturally this can impede the workings of the Security Council. Russia, for example, has used its veto on the Syrian affair 13 times. The US can often be awkward about the Palestinian affair. The other 3 permanent members use their right of veto less often. While China does tend to follow the Russian lead, it makes a bit more use of abstentions. Neither France nor the United Kingdom have used their veto since 1989.’

What also plays to the advantage of the permanent members is their “institutional memory”. ‘They have always had a seat at the Security Council, so they can draw upon their years of experience,’ says Poppe.

Members UN Security Council 2020: Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Vietnam, Estonia, China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, USA, Belgium, Germany, South Africa, Niger, and Tunisia

A strong voice at the table

But even as a small country, Belgium will not be walked all over. Poppe: ‘If you want to help write a text – i.e. be a co-penholder – then you do need to have a strong voice at the table. That was the only way we could come to chair the highly active ‘children and armed conflict’ working group, which is a priority for us. Belgium is also a co-penholder for the dossier on the humanitarian situation in Syria (along with Kuwait and Germany) and on UNOWAS, the UN office for conflict prevention in West Africa and the Sahel (along with the Ivory Coast).’

Belgium is not a co-penholder for the extension of the mandate for MONUSCO, the UN peace mission in the Congo. France, however – which is – will often call upon Belgium's expertise. That means our country can still make a sizeable contribution.

Like any other member, Belgium can ask for an item to be placed on the agenda, although the proposal does require a two-thirds majority (9 out of 15 votes) to be accepted. The permanent members cannot use their veto to prevent an item from appearing on the agenda.

Belgium is also diligent in seeking coalitions. The European countries are the natural partners of choice in this. ‘A lot of progress has been made in the past 2 years,’ confirms Pecsteen. ‘We're consulting on a whole range of themes and taking collective initiatives. But on the Council itself, we act as a nation state, although our statements don't often differ that much from those of other European countries.’ In the search for supporters, Belgium can also sound out standpoints with individual countries or organise a consultation with the African countries, for example.

Success stories

Pecsteen touches on 2 success stories during the first year of membership. ‘We were able to get a text approved on the protection of children in both Syria and Myanmar. In the case of Syria, Russia was opposed. Thanks to our efforts, they came round. China was extremely reserved about Myanmar but we were able to convince the country that it was better to send a positive signal to Myanmar.’

The non-permanent members also desire better collaboration to try and form a single bloc. Belgium participates actively in this. In early December 2019, the non-permanent members met in Brussels to try to work together more tightly.

Right to veto

Pecsteen is not a supporter of abolishing the right to veto. ‘Without the right to veto, some of the major powers might withdraw from the Security Council, but it's of the utmost importance that all the major powers do stay around the table.’ 

A number of proposals have been doing the rounds, however, to limit the right to veto. Poppe: ‘France itself proposed that the right to veto should not be used in the event of atrocities. The proposal has the support of over 100 UN member states, but not yet from any other permanent members.’

Some wish to expand the number of permanent members. Countries that seem the most eligible are Germany, Japan, India and Brazil. ‘But there's always a country somewhere that opposes this,’ says Poppe. The African countries also feel under-represented. For the time being, things will remain as they are.

This means it is better to take small steps and show greater consensus among non-permanent members. Pecsteen gives an example: ‘A proposed resolution for a cease-fire around Idlib (Syria) was struck down by a nyet from Russia and China. Nonetheless, as non-permanent members, we were able to exert a certain pressure on those 2 countries. No-one likes to feel isolated. Ultimately, we even had an effect on the ground: Syria announced a unilateral cease-fire.’

Soldiers inaugurate MUNISMA

A new centre for the MUNISMA peace mission in Mali is inaugurated. © UN Photo/Harandane Dicko

Peace missions

One very important power held by the Council is the appointment of UN peace missions. These often receive a great deal of criticism too. People say they do not do enough to protect the population, or act wantonly. ‘We did indeed see a few fiascos in the 1990s, such as with the genocide in Rwanda or in Srebrenica,’ says Pecsteen. ‘Much has changed for the better since then. The mandates are more powerful and are drawn up better, the staff in-situ are better trained and the UN in New York ensures the management is more thorough. There are also significantly more people participating in missions than in the 1990s.’

‘The population often has the wrong expectations too,’ remarks Poppe. ‘A peace mission is there to ensure a peace accord is respected, not to participate in the conflict itself. That's why MINUSMA – the mission in Mali – can't go after terrorists itself, as then it would lose its neutrality.’

Belgium is trying to ensure that the mandates for the peace missions are defined as realistically as possible, however. For example, our country was able to make sure MINUSMA can now be active in the centre of the country too, as the conflict had spilled over to there.

With MONUSCO also, Belgium is pressing for a more effective mandate that involves the neighbouring countries of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi as well. In any event, the protection of citizens and children and the battle against impunity are priorities for Belgium.

Chair in February

By all accounts, then, our country has got a good amount done during 1 year of membership. In the meantime, one unique opportunity to come to the fore remains. This is in February 2020, when Belgium will chair the Council. ‘The role is limited,’ says Pecsteen. ‘Our main job is to organise the Council's work properly and to be highly alert to unexpected urgent developments.’

Nonetheless, Belgium certainly wishes to emphasise a few things. Poppe: ‘We don't so much want to adopt new resolutions per se, but we do want to bring topics to the table that deserve greater attention. These will include children and armed conflict on 12 February, the international day against the use of child soldiers. We'll also organise a visit from Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Policy. That will also promote our view that the partnership with the EU is important. A visit from the King and Queen will also bring greater visibility.’

Saving us from Hell

Does the Security Council make a difference? At first sight, there seems to be a whole laundry list of conflicts, some of which seem to be in total deadlock: Syria, Libya, Venezuela, the Congo, Yemen, etc. But Poppe still believes that the Security Council really does have an impact. ‘Since WWII, we haven't seen another global conflict – a WWIII. The existing conflicts usually play out within a single state.’

However, the trend towards ‘unilateralism’ - the inclination of countries such as the US, Turkey, Russia and China to walk away from international consultation - does pose a risk. This can lead to further conflicts. ‘That's why Belgium will remain devoted to multi-lateralism,’ says Poppe.

In any event, the Security Council has not yet found itself at a standstill. In 2019, to this day (4 December), no less than 47 resolutions and 13 presidential statements have been issued. In 1959, there was a grand total of one. There are also nearly 100,000 UN peacekeepers still working in Africa and the Middle-East.

A quip that Dag Hammarskjöld once made helps with keeping both feet planted firmly on the ground here: the UN was not created in order to bring us to Heaven, but in order to save us from Hell. Even though things might be looking rocky in the world, the UN will continue to do a thorough job for now – and Belgium will be punching above its weight to help.

The UN Security Council: how it began

The Security Council came about at the end of WWII as one of the 6 principal organs of the United Nations. It was initially conceived by the former American President Roosevelt as early as 1939. He determined that the League of Nations – founded after WWI – was not succeeding in maintaining world peace. A more effectual successor was required.

The Security Council was given the power to commence peace operations and impose sanctions. It first sat in London on 17 January 1946. The Security Council was later housed at the UN Headquarters in New York.

There are 5 permanent members with a seat on the Security Council, essentially the victors in WWII: the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom. There are a further 10 elected non-permanent members that hold a representative seat for 2 years. Each region is given a limited number of seats: 3 for Africa, 2 for Asia & the Pacific, 2 for Western Europe & Others, 2 for Latin America & the Caribbean, 1 for Eastern Europe.

The permanent members hold a right to veto. This allows them to block resolutions – the binding decisions of the Security Council – which meant the Council was heavily paralysed during the Cold War in particular. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its work began to pick up speed.

UN Security Council: powers

The Security Council is responsible for maintaining peace and international security. It does so by avoiding the break-out of conflicts (prevention). Where a conflict has already arisen, it strives for peace, which must then be respected.

Political missions can be sent out for prevention, potentially with a Special Envoy from the Secretary-General, who will enter into dialogue with the parties in conflict. There may be mediation, or diplomatic pressure may be exerted to ensure that the parties in conflict do not resort to violence. Even a statement alone from the Security Council might also carry some weight.

International sanctions may be imposed in order to implement decisions by the Council. These sanctions may target individuals, entities or companies. General economic sanctions in a particular country, such as an embargo, are less common. After all, they tend to have a negative impact on the local population too.

Following a crisis, peace missions may be deployed. These can be solely political, without UN peacekeepers. Military peace missions are despatched to maintain the peace. These will include the militia (UN peacekeepers) as well as police officers (blue berets) and citizens. They will be led by a high-ranking citizen who reports directly to the UN Secretary-General. A peace mission will not get involved in the local conflict.

UN Security Council: decisions

The UN Security Council can issue resolutions, alongside presidential and press statements.

Resolutions are binding decisions. In order to approve a resolution, a two-thirds majority (9 out of 15 votes) is required, and they can be vetoed by any permanent member. Resolutions contain extensions of a peace mission's mandates on the one hand, and thematic or geographical decisions on the other.

Presidential and press statements must be endorsed by all members of the Security Council (consensus).

presidential statement is an official declaration by the chair of the Security Council. These are translated into the 6 languages of the UN (English, French, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Spanish).

press statement is a declaration to the press that is drawn up solely in English or French. Although not formal, these can still carry a certain weight.

UN Security Council: agenda

A different member chairs the Security Council each month. This is determined by a rotation of the members, in alphabetical order. At the start of each month, an agenda for the coming month is drawn up. This will include the recurring topics – annual extensions of mandates and sanctions – along with any reports on a particular theme or country that might also come up.

During the month, topical themes – new conflicts, for example – can also be placed on the agenda under ‘Any Other Business’.

Any member can place a topic on the agenda on the condition that at least 9 members vote for it.