Belgium in the UN

1. Introduction 

The United Nations at a glance

  • Founded in 1945 (San Francisco)
  • 193 Member States
  • Constituting instrument: UN Charter
  • Secretary-General since 2007: H.E. Ban Ki-Moon
  • Areas of work: peace and security, development, human rights, humanitarian assistance, disarmament and international law
  • Six Main Organs: General Assembly, Security Council, Trusteeship Council, Economic and Social Council, International Court of Justice and Secretariat.
  • More than 30 affiliated organizations
  • 6 official languages: English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish
  • Headquarters: New York, with main offices in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi.
  • Currently 16 peacekeeping operations (~125,000 personnel)  

The United Nations Organisation was founded in 1945 in San Francisco in the aftermath of WWII, as the successor organisation to the League of Nations. The initial objective of the organisation was to prevent wars between countries and create a more secure world, based on stable international relations. Representatives of 51 countries, including the Kingdom of Belgium, signed the United Nations Charter, thereby confirming their commitment to maintain international peace and security and promote human rights, better living standards and social progress. The first official Secretary General was the Norwegian Trygve Lie and the first president of the General Assembly was the Belgian politician Paul Henri Spaak. At present the UN has 193 Member States and is active in many domains. The activities of the UN have a stronger impact on the daily lives of people that one would assume at first sight. The examples below clearly illustrate that the work of the United Nations covers a vast range of action domains. The UN publications, initiatives, norms and operations influence the situation of people all around the globe.

Since its inception, the UN has displayed a strong convening power. By bringing together important actors from all over the world, setting an agenda and letting them carry out coordinated activities related to a certain theme, great results have been achieved throughout history. By defining goals, values and norms, the UN displays a clear normative power. Some of the most tangible UN-norms come in the form of treaties, which are legally binding for the countries that ratify them. These treaties enable the UN to enforce and monitor international law. The UN has exercised these powers throughout different fields of action, covering many thematic issues. Every day, the United Nations makes a difference for millions of people throughout the world; which is illustrated by the following examples:

The United Nations…

  • Provides food to 90 million people in 80 countries
  • Vaccinates 58 per cent of the world’s children, saving 3 million lives a year
  • Assists over 38.7 million refugees and people fleeing war, famine or persecution
  • Works with 193 countries to combat climate change and make development sustainable
  • UN Keeps peace with 120,000 peacekeepers in 16 operations on 4 continents
  • Fights poverty, helping improve the health and well-being of 420 million rural poor
  • Protects and promotes human rights on site and through some 80 treaties/declarations
  • Mobilizes USD 22 billion in humanitarian aid to help people affected by emergencies
  • Uses diplomacy to prevent conflict: assists some 60 countries a year with their elections
  • Promotes maternal health, saving the lives of 30 million women a year.

2. Thematic issues

2.1. Peace and Security

The principle of Member States working together to promote the maintenance of international peace and security is enshrined in the UN Charter. The prevention, containment and management of conflicts therefore belongs to the core activities of the UN.

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Conflict prevention can take the form of political, diplomatic, humanitarian or institutional activities. The UN has often succeeded in neutralising tensions by agreeing on peaceful settlements. The Security Council, through Sanctions Committees, can also decide to exercise pressure on a State or entity which threatens the international security by taking enforcement measures (such as the freezing of assets of political elites or arms embargoes).

In conflict and post-conflict areas around the world the UN has established field operations, named UN Peacekeeping Operations or blue-helmet missions. Since 1948, more than 70 peacekeeping missions have been deployed, of which there are 16 currently in place in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. The missions carry out different activities, depending on their mandates that have been issued by the UN Security Council, always carefully designed to respond to the needs of the country in conflict. UN Member States contribute financial resources and police and military personnel which serve in these peacekeeping operations. The UN also focuses its attention on strengthening the transition between peacekeeping and peace building, in order to support the countries that emerge from conflict by elaborating strategies of post conflict recovery.  Such activities might include the guidance of an electoral process, capacity-building or rule of law assistance. The UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an intergovernmental advisory body, focuses on the prevention of recurrence of conflict and supports peace efforts in countries emerging from conflict. Through its Country-Specific Configurations, the PBC is particularly active in Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Guinée, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and Liberia. 

2.2. Developmental issues

In September 2000, building upon a decade of major United Nations conferences and summits, world leaders came together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of 8 quantified targets with a deadline of 2015 - that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These targets provided an important framework for development. Yet for all the significant achievements which have been made on some of the MDG targets worldwide such as income poverty, access to improved sources of water, primary school enrollment, the fight against HIV/AIDS and child mortality, progress has been uneven, leaving significant gaps across regions and countries.

At the Rio+20 Summit Conference in 2012, Member States agreed to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what these did not achieve. After three years of planning, ahead of the post 2015 development Summit of September 2015, the 193 Member States of the United Nations reached consensus on a new agenda for development which contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. The approved outcome document was entitled, ‘Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. The Sustainable Development Goals aim to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty, reduce inequality within and between states, achieve gender equality, improve water management and energy, and take urgent action to combat climate change. They seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.

It is important to stress that not only governments but also stakeholders from civil society and the private sector have been actively involved in this process. The UN Secretariat, the fund and programs and agencies of the UN System such as UNDP and UNEP also play a large role in implementing and advancing the sustainable development goals.

2.3. Human rights

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 marked the beginning of a strong commitment of the UN in the promotion of human rights. Since then, many comprehensive agreements on political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights have been reached, both in general and specific areas. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) seeks to offer expertise and support to the different human rights mechanisms in the UN System, such as the treaty bodies which are made up of independent experts mandated to monitor the implementation by States Parties of the core international human rights treaties. There are 10 human rights treaty bodies that monitor implementation of the core international Human rights treaties:

  1. Human Rights Committee (CCPR)
  2. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
  3. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  4. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  5. Committee against Torture (CAT)
  6. Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT)
  7. Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  8. Committee on Migrant Workers ((CMW)
  9. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  10. Committee on Enforced Dispappearances (CED)

OHCHR also provides substantive support to Human Rights Council which was created in 2006 and replaced the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights. This intergovernmental body based at the UN Office in Geneva and composed of 47 elected United Nations Members States, is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing human rights violations. The Council adopted its own procedures and mechanism, among them the Universal Periodic Review which serves to assess the human rights situations in all United Nations Member States. It also works with UN Special Procedures which are made up of Special Rapporteurs and independent experts that monitor, advise and report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries.

The UN also particularly envisages the improvement of women’s lives. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly approved the creation of UN Women by merging several relevant UN entities. UN Women seeks to strengthen institutional arrangements for gender equality and women empowerment.  The rights of children are another example of a UN human rights objective, which is largely advocated by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

2.4. Humanitarian issues

Since its inception, the UN has provided humanitarian aid to the victims of conflicts, including refugees. The Organization also offers emergency relief in response to natural disasters when the national capacity is insufficient. Through its operational agencies, the UN humanitarian action is carried out based on a long-term assistance strategy, including food, shelter, medical supplies and logistical support. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has the mandate to strengthen the coordination among several relevant UN bodies (in particular the UN Development Program, UN Refugee Agency, UN Children’s Fund and the World Food Program), in order to operate more efficiently in the field. 

2.5. International justice

To date more than 160 bilateral disputes – such as territorial issues or issues of non-interference with the internal affairs of a State –have been settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is one of the six main bodies of the UN. In addition, the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) for the former Yugoslavia and the ICT for Rwanda were set up in order to prosecute serious crimes committed during these two major international crises. This determination to fight against impunity was also reasserted by the establishment of several Ad Hoc Tribunals – for Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and Lebanon. In 1998, 120 States adopted the Rome Statue, the  legal basis for establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is the first permanent, international criminal court established to end impunity. To date, 123 countries have ratified the Rome Statute and  are State Parties to the Rome Statute and 22 cases in 9 situations have been brought before the International Criminal Court. Pursuant to the Rome Statute, the Prosecutor can initiate an investigation on the basis of a referral from any State Party or from the Un Security Council. While the ICC is an independent judicial institution and not part of the UN system, the Security Council, has referred cases to the ICC. The situation in Darfur and the one in Libya are the two cases that have been referred so far by the Security Council.

3. Belgium’s contributions to the UN 

The success and failure of the UN depend on the will of governments to move forward within this multilateral framework. As a founding member of the UN and a staunch defender of the principles of effective multilateralism, the Kingdom of Belgium strongly supports the UN System not only in terms of true political engagement and belief in the Organisation, but also in terms of sustainable and predictable financial contributions.  The policies and objectives of the UN, its specialized programs, funds and agencies correspond to the broad guidelines of Belgian foreign policy and development cooperation, its values, interests and principles. At the UN Headquarters, Belgian diplomats defend the national priorities by representing the country during UN meetings and conferences. As a member of the European Union, Belgium also coordinates its position on many topics with the other 27 Member States.

3.1. Peace and Security

Conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding are essential elements of Belgian foreign policy. Over the past years, Belgium contributed to peacekeeping missions in the countries of Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Mali. The promotion of peace and security require multifaceted and multidimensional measures in different fields, such as counterterrorism, the fate of children in armed conflict and non-proliferation and disarmament. In the latter field, Belgium has played a particularly visible role in the negotiations leading to the so-called Ottawa Convention on Anti-Personnel Mines. Belgium will continue to pay close attention to these weapons, as well as to the more general issues of small arms and light weapons and unexploded war remnants. Belgium is also an active member of the Peacebuilding Commission and has served as president of the Country Specific Configuration for the Central African Republic. Moreover, Belgium has served 5 times as a non-permanent Member of the UN Security Council: in 1947-48, in 1955-56, in 1971-72, in 1991-92 and in 2007-08. In 2009, Belgium announced its candidacy for Membership of the Security Council for the term 2019-2020, at elections to be held in the Spring of 2018.

3.2. Human Rights

Belgium’s foreign policy aims at enhancing the positive correlation between peace and security, development and human rights, the three main pillars of the United Nations.

As a founding member of the United Nations, Belgium is committed to human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

On 28 October 2015, Belgium was elected to the UN Human Rights Council for the term 2016-2018. Belgium was previously a member from 2009-2012. A number of issues discussed in the Human Rights Council - such as violence against women in conflict and the protection of children in conflict areas – are also discussed in the UN Security Council, for which our country is a candidate for the period 2019-2020. During the three-year mandate in Geneva, Belgium will continue to work on priority issues such as the fight against impunity, the abolition of death penalty, women’s rights, children's rights and freedom of expression. Our country highly values the role of civil society organizations in UN institutions, in UN member states and of course in Belgium itself. Our country will also work on strengthening the institutions that defend human rights, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and regional organizations such as the Council of Europe or the African Union. Belgium insists on  joint action with the EU Member States and gives priority to the development of a European human rights diplomacy.

Belgium continues to work towards a strong and effective Human Rights Council and for the universality and indivisibility of human rights. Belgium aims to ensure that the Council, in addressing human rights violations, deals both with country situations and with thematic issues. Belgium  believes a robust system of UN Special Rapporteurs and independent human rights experts is an excellent tool allowing the Council to address human rights situations on the ground. We are committed to cooperating with them and will continue to make every effort to respect the integrity and independence of these special procedures.

Belgium fully engages with the Universal Periodic Review mechanism and strives to ensure effective follow-up to universal periodic review recommendations as accepted during its review. We also actively participate in discussions on the review of other countries.

Belgium has been a staunch supporter of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) since its creation. The independence and the impartiality of this Office must be safeguarded, as these are essential conditions to enable the Office to promote and protect human rights. Most of our contributions during the past decade were non-earmarked.

Belgium ratified the major human rights conventions and has established a number of national institutions with a vast mandate in the field of the promotion, the respect and the protection of human rights. 

Belgian human rights priorities at the international level include:

  • Combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law - Belgium is a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court.
  • Ensuring respect for the physical integrity of every person, including progress towards universal abolition of the death penalty.
  • Enhancing equality and countering discrimination, with particular attention to the rights of women, children, and vulnerable persons.
  • Promoting decent work and social protection for all and respect for international labor standards.
  • Working towards inclusive economic growth as a lever to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development.
  • Addressing the scourge of racism: all victims of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance must benefit from the same attention and protection.
  • Promoting freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, as a key component in any democratic society.

3.3. Development cooperation

In recent years, the total Belgian development assistance represented approximately 0.46% of the GNI. Belgium strives to direct at least 50% of its official development aid to the least developed countries (LDCs). The Belgian development policy focuses on 14 partner countries and  revolves around two central axes: a rights-based approach and sustainable and inclusive growth. This includes a focus on fragile states and post-conflict zones, with priority for the Great Lakes region and West and North Africa. This substantive, geographic focuses prevents fragmentation, and enables a coherent approach to cross boarder issues such as peace, security, regional stability, climate and migration. All of this has one purpose: to increase the impact of the Belgian Development Cooperation in the field. Over the past years, Belgian humanitarian aid has contributed to supporting the most vulnerable population groups in many crises including Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the occupied Palestinian territories, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Belgian Development Cooperation paid particular humanitarian attention to the plight of Syrian refugees and of victims of the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa.

The actions of the Belgian cooperation follow a rights based approach to development, based on the universality, indivisibility and inalienability of human rights, as well as the principles of participation and inclusivity in decision-making, non-discrimination and equality, transparence and accountability.

The Belgian development cooperation has 15 multilateral partner organisations, which have been selected because their core tasks fit in closely with the lines of force of Belgian development policy: agricultural and food security (FAO, CGIAR), health (WHO, GFATM, UNAIDS), human rights (OHCHR), gender and women's rights (UN Women), children's rights (UNICEF), good governance and capacity building (UNDP), demography and sexual and reproductive rights (UNFPA), decent work (ILO), migration (IOM), environment (UNEP) and Tax Policy and Administration Topical Trust Fund (TPA TTF).  In addition, 4 humanitarian organisations (ICRC, UNHCR, OCHA and WFP) are longstanding humanitarian partner organisations through the Royal Decree of 19 April 2014 on humanitarian aid.

3.4. Financial Contributions to the UN system

Belgium is an important financial contributor to the UN. On basis of the “capacity to pay principle”, Belgium’s share in the overall budget of the UN is currently set at 0.998%, which ranks Belgium as the 18th largest contributor. The mandatory contributions fund the so-called “regular program-budget” of the organization (5.530 billion USD for the calendar years 2014-2015) and the peacekeeping operations (8.275 billion USD for the period between July 2015 and June 2016). The expenses are paid by the Federal Public Service for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation.

In addition, Member States also make voluntary contributions as donors to the United Nations (including the regular core budget), the specialized organisations, agencies, funds and programs. Belgium is also an important donor in this respect. In recent years, the Belgian contributions amounted to approximately 200 million euro annually, with UNDP and UNICEF as largest beneficiaries. The main part is paid by Federal ministries (essentially the Federal Public Service for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation) but a small fraction (5%) is also covered by the Regions.