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Belgium and the United Nations: a historical perspective

Belgian delegation in San Francisco

Spring 1945. Belgian diplomats are present in San Francisco for the drafting of the original Charter of the United Nations. On June 26th, Belgium joins the Organization along with fifty other founding members.

The First Session of the General Assembly will be held in London in 1946. There, two Ministers of Foreign Affairs are competing for the chairmanship of this noble hemicycle: the Norwegian Trygve Halvdan Lie and his Belgian colleague, Paul-Henri Spaak. In the end, the latter prevails. 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 Organization. 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 five occasions: in 1947-48, in 1955-56, in 1971-72, in 1991-92 and in 2007-08. Over the course of these years, the Permanent Representatives Fernand Vanlangenhove, Edouard Longerstaey, Paul Noterdaeme, Johan Verbeke and Jan Grauls will have the honor of chairing the Council.

While being one of the main contributors to the Organization’s budget, Belgium also participates in early peacekeeping operations, such as those in Kashmir (1949) and in Korea (1950) where it sends a large contingent. After Korea, we see 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 get killed. This tragic incident will put a hold on the Belgian participation to 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 in UN-mandated coalitions such as ISAF in Afghanistan.

Motivated by the spirit of enterprise, the Belgians don’t 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 for two years the Commission for the Status of Women (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 Labor Organization 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, our former National Prosecutor Serge Brammertz carries out the duty of Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (thus replacing Ms. Carla Del Ponte since 2008). 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 in 2009; while Daniel Fransen is 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. Since 2007, Raymond Yans serves as a Member of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent control organ monitoring the implementation of the international drug control conventions.