Belgium on the UN Security Council: how a small country can punch above its weight
Published on 11 March 2021
King Philippe addresses the Security Council during the Belgian Presidency in February 2020.
Theme: children and armed conflicts. In the background former Ambassador
Pecsteen (left) and then Minister of Foreign Affairs Goffin.
© UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Belgium has just finished its 6th membership of the UN Security Council and it is already preparing for a 7th mandate in 2037-2038. Indeed, in the United Nations' 75 years of existence, our country has built up a solid reputation as a reliable 'bridge-builder', and that has benefits for our security and prosperity.
After the end of World War II in 1945, Belgium was weary and on the ropes, having barely survived two world wars in about 40 years. How could little Belgium hold its own in an unstable world with powerful, zealous neighbours? Belgium's neutrality policy had failed, obviously.
Paul-Henri Spaak addresses the first session of the UN General Assembly in 1945.
© UN Photo
The then Prime Minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, was convinced that international cooperation or 'multilateralism' offered a way out, which is why he was heavily involved in the creation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. He was even appointed as the first Chairman of the first session of the General Assembly! Shortly after the establishment of the UN Security Council − the guardian of international peace and security − Belgium already became a non-permanent member between 1947-1948.
From the beginning, Paul-Henri Spaak knew that the UN would not be sufficient to guarantee Belgium's security. After all, he believed there was an inevitable 'structural defect' in the Security Council, specifically the right of veto. It meant that the five permanent members, the victors of WWII, including the USA and the Soviet Union, had the right to block a subject. A superpower could therefore invade a smaller country and then prevent the international community from intervening.
"Belgium has never been a fan of the right of veto. But the Belgians were pragmatic enough to realise that this price was worth paying in order to keep the superpowers on board," notes Axel Kenes, Director General for Multilateral Affairs and Globalisation at the FPS Foreign Affairs and a New York diplomat during Belgium's membership of the Security Council in the 2007-2008 term. Without the right of veto, those superpowers could have turned their back on the UN, and that would have been a backward step.
"In order to guarantee Belgium's security, Paul-Henri Spaak pushed for regional cooperation, first through the formation of the Benelux, and later within a European community," explains Kenes. Developing NATO as a regional security force was also one of his pet projects.
"In addition to security, our prosperity, our economy in other words, was also a key reason for striving for international cooperation," Kenes emphasises. "A small country lives off trade and needs a large foreign market." And a strong multilateral framework with firm rules is essential in ensuring security and a healthy economy. That is why Paul-Henri Spaak was in favour of an International Court of Justice as part of the UN. It meant that legally binding rules could actually be enforced for both large and small countries.
Multilateralism is therefore ingrained in Belgium's DNA, and that is why our country has always felt very closely involved with the UN. It has also been a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council six times so far, which is a fine achievement for a small country, putting it on an equal footing with Germany and Canada.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel De Gucht addressed the Security Council during Belgian
membership in 2008. On the far right, then Minister for Development Cooperation Charles Michel.
© UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
Broad view of security
But Belgium is not only a frequent member, it also exerts a significant influence on the agenda. In this way, our country has undoubtedly contributed to the much broader understanding of the concept of 'security' that exists now. Initially, the Security Council's mandate − international peace and security − was limited to military conflicts between countries. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the crippling stand-off between the US and Russia ceased, the concept of security evolved in a spectacular way, and Belgium was very much a driving force in this.
'National security' had, after all, expanded to include 'safety of people'. During its membership in 1991-1992, our country began several initiatives to have the Security Council take action against human rights violations. Later on, the focus broadened to include humanitarian disasters.
"The definition of security became increasingly more detailed," explains Kenes. "With this approach, Belgium would rather prevent a fire than have to put it out, and this is why we advocate mediation and conflict prevention. We also believe that climate change has a major impact on security, which China and Russia are far less able to understand," he adds.
The definition of 'sovereignty', or the right to self-determination, also evolved just as much. Although the UN brought countries together in 1945, at the same time it respected their 'sovereignty': they remained responsible for their internal affairs, and other countries had no right of involvement. Nevertheless, some sovereignty was already ceded with the establishment of the Security Council, since it was able to impose binding rules on a country.
And it didn't stop there. For example, the Security Council is now able to intervene in a country where oppression under a dictator is getting out of hand: in 2005, the UN was given the 'responsibility to protect' in the case of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Belgium is making every effort to have this 'R2P standard' included in Security Council resolutions as much as possible.
It also successfully put the illegal exploitation of natural resources on the agenda as a member during its 2007-2008 term. It recognised, after all, that such operations often finance war lords who can destabilise an entire region.
How does little Belgium manage to punch above its weight? It seeks the support of like-minded parties to put an item on the agenda. This has enabled it to gain the support of other countries in tackling exploitation of natural resources, while lending its support to the UK on the impact of climate change.
Our country has also always promoted cooperation between European countries. For example, during the 1971-1972 membership term, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pierre Harmel, proposed that, from then onwards, the EU's foreign ministers should meet twice a year for an informal exchange of views. Belgium also encourages regular consultations between the EU countries in the Security Council in order to define joint positions. In fact, our country very often performs a bridging function between the EU and the UN.
Belgium is valued as a bridge builder. Hence the slogan during the campaign
for membership 2019-2020: Fostering Consensus, Acting for Peace.
© FOD BuZa/SPF AE
And so we find another constant: our country has always been a solid bridge-builder or mediator. "Belgium understands the art of compromise," says Kenes. "Concluding a multilateral agreement, and therefore finding a widely supported solution, is so important that we are prepared to make concessions. We don't have to achieve everything on our agenda." Paul-Henri Spaak also believed that a small country like Belgium needed to be the glue that keeps the superpowers together.
Belgium has therefore built up a sound reputation within the international community. "We are regarded as an extremely reliable partner that strives for consensus," notes Kenes. This is why it is often given the difficult, sensitive issues to deal with, such as humanitarian aid access in Syria. Belgium also regularly leads the negotiations on topics on which the US and Russia have very different ideas.
Our proposals are always well-founded. Belgium's diplomats are experienced and passionate, and the country always sends its top diplomats to New York during a membership term. Our country plays a very active role in the General Assembly too.
Former development minister Alexander De Croo talks in the Security Council
about the humanitarian situation in Syria (February 2020).
© UN Photo/Loey Felipe
A world without the UN is unthinkable
The Security Council has undeniably achieved great things in its 75-year history. Its failures are often widely spread in the media, while its successes remain invisible. In 2008, for example, the Security Council was able to defuse an extremely tense and potentially highly volatile situation between two population groups in Kenya by sending a mediator.
Today, however, increasing numbers of people are questioning multilateralism, including Belgian citizens. They believe we must reclaim the surrendered sovereignty. ‘That's why we have to spell out how important it is for us to cede some sovereignty,’ Kenes explains. ‘The best example is the current COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, the World Health Organisation has room for improvement, but we can't do without it. The same can be said of the UN and the Security Council.’
"In my view, we don't need more institutions and multilateralism, or indeed less of these or more of the same," concludes Kenes. "What we do need is to demonstrate how multilateralism can offer untold added value for everyone, and to do this by working on some very specific issues − global challenges such as climate change, health, migration, trade, and so on. Because a world without the UN is practically unthinkable."
Today, Belgium is already planning for a 7th mandate, in 2037-2038. Twelve years still seems a long time, but it is the average period between mandates in the past. In order to actually obtain the seat, meticulous preparation is indispensable.
But Belgium's commitment to effective multilateralism does not stop there. For example, our country is campaigning for the role of chairman of the 5th Committee of the UN General Assembly. This year, our country chairs the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Belgium will also lead the Disarmament Conference in 2021. In 2023 Belgium will be a member of the Council of the International Seabed Authority.
Find out more:
- Press release: Belgium completes two-year mandate in the UN Security Council
- Climate and security, a clear priority for Belgium
- Children and armed conflict: a priority for Belgium