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Belgium and the United Nations: a historical perspective

Belgian delegation in San Francisco

In spring 1945, Belgian diplomats were present in San Francisco for the drafting of the original Charter of the United Nations. On 26 June, Belgium joined the Organisation along with fifty other founding members.

The First Session of the General Assembly was held in London in 1946. There, two Ministers of Foreign Affairs competed for the chairmanship of this noble hemicycle: the Norwegian Trygve Halvdan Lie and his Belgian colleague, Paul-Henri Spaak. In the end, the latter was elected. Lie, quite incognizant of the future prestige of this post, is named Secretary-General as a consolation prize.

In the autumn of 1946, during the Second Session (Flushing Meadows), the General Assembly chooses New York as the seat of the Organisation. Three years later, the headquarters are built on the bank of the East River. The design of the building complex is assigned to an international team of eleven renowned architects, working under the supervision of the American Wallace K. Harrison, and including Le Corbusier (France-Switzerland), Oskar Niemeyer (Brazil) and Gaston Brunfaut from Belgium.

As a token of its ambition, Belgium is elected for the first time in 1947 as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. All in all, Belgium will fill this seat on six occasions: in 1947-48, in 1955-56, in 1971-72, in 1991-92, in 2007-08 and in 2019-20. Over the course of these years, the Permanent Representatives Fernand Vanlangenhove, Edouard Longerstaey, Paul Noterdaeme, Johan Verbeke,  Jan Grauls and Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve will all have the honour of chairing the Council.

While being one of the main contributors to the Organisation’s budget, Belgium also participates in early peacekeeping operations, such as those in Kashmir (1949) and in Korea (1950) where a large contingent was sent. After Korea, there would be no Belgian interventions in peacekeeping operations until the 90’s, with operations in Somalia (UNOSOM), in the former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR/UNTAES), and in Rwanda (UNAMIR), where 10 Belgian blue helmets got killed. This tragic incident put a hold on Belgium’s participation in peacekeeping operations, before gearing back up towards the end of the present decade. In recent years, the Belgian military has deployed blue helmets in Sudan (UNMIS), Lebanon (UNIFIL), Middle East (UNTSO), DRC (MONUSCO) and Mali (MINUSMA). They have also been dispatched as part of UN-mandated coalitions such as ISAF in Afghanistan.

With multilateralism as part of their diplomatic DNA, Belgians do not hesitate to take up responsibilities within the UN family. At the General Assembly, our fellow countrymen chaired different committees: the First Committee, responsible for Disarmament (F. Vanlangenhove - 1950s); the Second Committee, responsible for Economic and Financial matters (P.A. Forthomme - 1965); the Sixth Committee, responsible for Legal matters (E. Suy - 1972); and - apparently being good with numbers - the Fifth Committee, responsible for Administrative and budgetary matters, on three occasions (A.X. Pirson - 1979, A. Teirlinck - 1994, A. Mernier - 1998). In the context of ECOSOC, Ambassador Olivier Belle chaired the Commission for the Status of Women for two years (2007 - 2009). In the Secretariat, Professor Eric Suy occupied the position of Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel and was subsequently Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva (1974 - 1987). Other noteworthy compatriots in the UN system include former Belgian Minister Michel Hansenne (Director-General of the International Labour Organisation from 1989 to 1999), Peter Piot, M.D. (first UNAIDS Executive Director, from 1995 to 2008) and Ambassador Johan Verbeke, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Georgia (2009).

Today, a number of Belgians fulfil high-profile functions in the UN-system. Michèle Coninsx, President of Eurojust, holds the office as Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) at the Assistant Secretary-General level. Former Minister of Belgium and Vice-President of the European Parliament Isabelle Durant currently serves as Deputy Secretary-General of the Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva. Philippe Couvreur is fulfilling his second term as Registrar of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, after multiple previous functions at the ICJ. Our former National Prosecutor Serge Brammertz took on the role as Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia until its closure at the end of 2017 and serves now as Chief Prosecutor of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. Professor Olivier De Schutter served as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food at the Human Rights Council from 2008 until 2015 and is currently a Member of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Former President of the Constitutional Court of Belgium, Professor Marc Bossuyt, currently serves as an independent expert of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Belgian Judge Christine Van den Wyngaert has served on the Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia before becoming Judge at the International Criminal Court between 2009 and 2018; while Daniel Fransen served as Judge at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele was actively involved with the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1995 until 2015 and served as vice-chair of the Panel.