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From Five to Four: Belgium Strives to Fill the European Gap in the Security Council Left by Brexit

Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve and Stéphanie Fillion
Belgium’s ambassador to the UN, Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, being interviewed in his office in Midtown Manhattan by Stéphanie Fillion, a PassBlue reporter, Jan. 30, 2020. The country is rotating president of the Security Council in February, managing a tight schedule that includes a meeting on the recently announced US proposal for the Mideast.

In Brussels, the month started with the removal of Britain’s flag from the European Union headquarters, while in New York, Belgium became rotating president of the United Nations Security Council for February, ready to fill the political vacuum left by Britain’s departure from the European bloc on the Council, thanks to Brexit.

PassBlue met with Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve a day after Britain reached a deal to exit the European Union. “Of course, they are leaving the EU, but they remain European,” he said in the interview on Jan. 30. “They keep the same value. And we all know these values right now are rather under attack, under threat, so it’s really the time to work together, all of us, and the fact that they are not in the EU anymore doesn’t make a difference.”

Despite the fact that Belgium, one of 10 elected members on the Council, expressed a desire for Britain to still join the other Europeans in statements from the regional bloc in the Security Council, Ambassador Karen Pierce of Britain was not part of a Council media stakeout with Europeans on Feb. 4 regarding Myanmar. (Britain remains a permanent member of the Council.)

While the results of Brexit will take some major adjustments for the four remaining European members on the Council, another permanent member, the United States, is also grabbing the spotlight. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan was unveiled recently, and his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will try to sell his plan to Security Council members at a private meeting at the US mission to the UN, with Ambassador Kelly Craft and Brian Hook, the US envoy on Iran, on Feb. 6. Soon after, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, will brief the Council on Feb.11. He is apparently offering a counterplan to the American one.

Brexit and the Israeli-Palestine issue could easily overshadow Belgium’s priorities and signature events for the month, yet Belgium has a tight schedule to keep: King Philippe and Princess Mathilde of Belgium will be in New York City on Feb. 12 to preside over a Council meeting on children and armed conflict, a strong focus on Belgium’s agenda. The next day, Belgium is organizing an open debate on transitional justice, a first, it says, for the Council to discuss directly. Father Francisco de Roux, the head of Colombia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Jesuit, will attend. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet will brief the Council remotely from Geneva.

Belgium has also organized a meeting on the cooperation between the UN and the European Union, and the EU’s recently appointed High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell is scheduled to attend the meeting on Feb. 25.

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the presidency of the Security Council and highlights important data about their countries, including their carbon emission levels and maternal death rates, which signal their commitments to mitigating climate change and promoting women’s rights. Belgium, a small but rich country, has a maternal death rate of 5 per 100,000 women; by contrast, the US rate is 19 per 100,000.

This column follows ones on Britain, South Africa, the US, Bolivia, China, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, France, Germany and Russia, among others.

To hear an original audio analysis with more details on Belgium’s Council presidency, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, at Apple Podcasts, Patreon, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.

Belgium’s Ambassador to the UN: Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, 58
Ambassador to UN Since: August 2016
Languages: English, French, Dutch, Spanish
Education: Master’s in law (LL.M.), master’s in international relations, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium
His story, briefly: Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve started his career in diplomacy by being posted in various spots quickly around the world. From 1991-1999, he worked in Argentina, Pakistan and Austria. His time in Pakistan is one he remembers fondly: Belgium was president of the European Union at the time, and his boss, the Belgian ambassador to Pakistan then, was called back to help in Brussels.

“I was just chargé d’affaireas a young diplomat in my 30s,” he said. “I was chairing the group of ambassadors of the EU with very senior diplomats, like the UK ambassador in Pakistan, you can imagine, a very senior guy. So I was there and I stayed alone for four months; I learned many things and we did great things, including a trip to Kashmir on the Pakistani side. For me, it was fantastic.”

After his time abroad, Pecsteen de Buytswerve returned to his country’s capital and worked in the UN department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was posted to Belgium’s mission to the UN in New York City, from 2002-2006. He left right before Belgium got a seat on the Security Council, in 2007-2008, so when he was nominated ambassador in 2016, he didn’t want to miss this chance again. “I remember when I left, . . . I was so frustrated. Are we going to miss this, you know! And then here I am. It’s really a great opportunity. So I feel really lucky that I’m here right at the moment that Belgium is on the Security Council. It’s an experience in a lifetime.”

Before coming back in 2016 to New York, Ambassador Pecsteen de Buytswerve worked as chief of staff of the minister of foreign affairs from 2014-2016 and was also consul general for Belgium in Shanghai, from 2006-2009. He is married and has three children.

His remarks have been edited for space and clarity. The interview held on Jan. 30 was supplemented with information from a Feb. 3 media briefing.

Throughout your career you have been posted all over the world — Argentina, Pakistan, Austria, Rwanda and China. How do you think these experiences abroad prepared you for this post at the UN in New York? It gives you exposure to different cultures, different ways of looking at things. I think that really it provides an extra dimension to our work here. . . . I was actually quite happy to have this mix of multilateral experience but also having served in bilateral embassies in different countries and, as I said, in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa. So indeed, it gives quite an interesting perspective.

You came back to the UN in 2016 to run Belgium’s campaign for an elected seat on the Security Council. What did you learn from the campaign and what do you think was instrumental in getting the seat? The campaign had many aspects, but certainly the one we did here in [New York] was based mainly on the personal contacts with all our colleagues, and that’s so important. It takes a lot of time to go and see them, each individually, and you talk about their priorities at the UN, how can we help them to reach that? How can we contribute to the Security Council? I think these personal relations are really the core business of a diplomat. When you think about it, it is really establishing trust, a relationship where you can really have trust in each other. And that’s what we need also on the Security Council.

Belgium is a relatively small country, but I think it’s fair to say it’s mighty, being the seat of the European Union. How has that shaped Belgium’s approach to the UN? The EU dimension is very important in our approach to the Security Council. For us, it is our DNA, being the center, the capital of Europe. It’s also at the center of experience after World War II and determining how to establish peace after so many bloody wars. The only way was regional integration. So this is something we value extremely. There are five EU countries right now in the Council [Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and, until Jan. 31, Britain], so that’s a lot, a third of the membership. So we really try to coordinate very closely and speak maybe not with one voice because we all speak in the Council, but with the same message. . . .  Outside the Council, the five [of us] together make a statement to the press, concretely expressing that we have one similar position on an issue.

But now that the UK has exited the EU, how are you working with Britain, and how do you see this evolving in the next year? I feel like there’s a lot that’s going to change. We’re all very sad here, also our UK colleagues. So there were some very emotional moments, today and yesterday, but I think we will continue to work very closely together, and our UK colleagues are saying it. Of course, they are leaving the EU, but they remain European. They will keep the same values, and we all know these values right now are rather under attack, under threat. It’s really the time to work together, all of us, and the fact that they are not in the EU anymore doesn’t make a difference. So on human rights, justice, fight against impunity, all these issues, I think we will keep acting very, very closely together.

Last November, Belgium sponsored a Security Council meeting with Indonesia about radicalization in prison. That’s an issue that many European countries deal with, and much is being done to address this problem, with mixed results. What are the next steps for this topic in the Council? And how does it fit within the context of prosecuting fighters from ISIS? This meeting we organized was really drawing on our own experience in Belgium because we realized that maybe not all, but many, of the terrorists in Belgium actually radicalized in prison and very rapidly. Which is quite surprising. Many of them were just small criminals, I would say, committing petty crimes and things like that, so they landed in jail and within a few months they were radicalized. That is something I think our system didn’t really see coming. It’s really based on that experience, the realization that we want to draw lessons from that . . . and try now to avoid that. On ISIS returnees, that is a big challenge, how to make sure that we can deradicalize them, if possible. This is a very, very big challenge, and I think it’s very difficult to tackle, but we have to do this. It has to be part of the fight against terrorism in many countries. Not only in our country, but I think in so many other countries. That’s something probably we have to come back to at some point, but we don’t have plans in the short term yet.

I also want to revisit what happened recently on Syria. Belgium is a penholder in the Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, and you worked with Kuwait and Germany on a draft resolution to renew the mandate that kept open four border-crossings in Syria to deliver aid to millions of people. But the result was only two crossings, for only six months, after bruising negotiations with Russia on the final resolution. That eliminated two crossings, including a crucial border point from Iraq. Do you see this as a failure? We would have wished for another result that would have renewed the whole system, like it was before, because we think it was justified. Certainly, the crossing point with the border of Iraq was still used by the humanitarian agencies. We still think that there were strong arguments for keeping this crossing point. But unfortunately, the result of the negotiations was that it wasn’t possible. But I think the fact that we reached an agreement on at least continuing the system, with two crossing points on the north of the border with Turkey, where people living in this area, in the northwest, are totally depending on that system for humanitarian assistance. That is really a lifeline, so it’s a question of life or death in a way. So not perfect as a result, but at least it is something that was very important to us.

What did you learn primarily from the negotiations with Russia on the cross-border points in Syria? It was a very tough negotiation. It took quite a long time, and we finally adopted the resolution on the evening of the very last day of the existing authorization for the mechanism [Jan. 10]. I think we have to be very focused and always keep in mind this objective that was purely humanitarian, about saving lives. For us, it was not about politics. And I think that was the important thing to keep that objective and keep repeating this. And we went through it.

How do you think the 10 elected (E10) members can assert themselves in the Council against the permanent-five members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)? As you know, we meet regularly, the E10; we try to coordinate positions, not on everything, as there are some issues we don’t all agree on. But there are a few where we do agree. And the one you just mentioned, this cross-border mechanism for Syria, for instance, is a case where we could have strong support from the E10. And if you look at the voting, it’s quite interesting. It’s a resolution that was adopted with four permanent members abstaining. One voted yes [France]. And then all E10 voting yes. I don’t know if you have many resolutions like that, where you see that the majority were the E10, and without them you would have no resolution. So I think that that was quite interesting.

Country Profile

Head of State: King Philippe Léopold Louis Marie

Foreign Affairs Minister: Philippe Goffin

Type of Government: Constitutional monarchy

Year Joined the UN: 1945

Years on the Security Council: (1947-48, 1955-56, 1971-72, 1991-92, 2007-08)

Closest Allies on the Council: Estonia, France, Germany

Population: 11.4 million

Memberships in Regional Groups: European Union

Maternal Death Rate:5/100,000 (2017). By contrast, the rate for the US in 2017 was 19/100,000, both considered “very low” by Unicef.

GDP per Capita:$43,324; (world average, $11,200)

Emissions (tons of CO2/year, per capita): 8.7 (world average, 5)

Total Contributions to UN Operating Budget: $25,160,168 (rounded):

Total Contributions to UN Peacekeeping Budget: $53,400,000

Electric Power Consumption: 1(world average, 3 kwh/year)

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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