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Belgium Abstains in General Assembly Vote

Just why did Belgium – the only country in the world to have banned DU, abstain during the crucial General Assembly vote last month? Needless to say, the Belgian Coalition, which represents 28 organisations, was very disappointed.
21 December 2007 - Ria Verjauw

This outcome came as a huge shock to us because Belgium made history this year by voting unanimously in the Belgian Parliament for a law that bans uranium weapons. This law goes into effect in two years time but it is clear that this law is very political and that it is not the intention of Belgium to start a short-term diplomatic initiative on the DU issue in the near future. This was emphasised by one of the liberal democrats during the law preparation meetings in the Belgian Chamber Commission on National Defence last March.

Dirk Van der Maelen (Flemish Socialist and sponsor of the Belgian law) suggested that the Commission on Defence would evaluate the political situation two months before the law enters into force.

Two different scenarios may occur at that time: if by that time a suitable international awareness has developed and a large political consensus is reached to launch actions against DU weapons, then Belgian Ministers would need to look at the possibility of acting on an international level to help ban uranium weapons worldwide.

If no progress has been made at that time, it would be unreasonable to ask our Ministries to promote the ban internationally without other countries also doing so. In that case the execution of the law will be restricted to Belgian territory alone.

The passing of the UN resolution puts the DU issue on the UN agenda for the first time in history. It is therefore an important step forward and contributes to the international awareness of the DU issue.

Belgian officials claim that the cluster munitions campaign is their main priority now and that it is difficult to work on two campaigns at the same time. Another reason that the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave for abstaining during the UN vote was that they were scared of being isolated within the EU, although Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy didn’t seem to share their concerns. “Our political diplomacy cannot be overstressed,” claimed a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A few days before the voting at the UN First Committee, Belgian officials were informed about the removal of that part of the text on the original draft resolution that says: ‘requests the member states to refrain from using armaments and ammunitions containing DU until studies to determine the effects of such armaments and ammunitions on human health and the environment are completed.’ According to a statement by the Ministry, there was not enough time to consult with other countries on the issue.

Were these reasonable arguments in favour of abstaining during the UN vote?

The second vote took place on the 5th of December. This time Belgian officials did have time to consult with other countries, but again Belgium abstained, together with 35 other countries.

A while ago, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs confirmed that they would follow the international discussions on DU very closely in the future. Why then, did they abstain from voting on a resolution that demands an international inquiry into the effects of depleted uranium? This means loss of face for Belgium!

Meanwhile, 24 Belgian scientists and medical doctors prepared an article to publish in all the main Belgian newspapers as an opinion piece. In this article, they speak about the UN resolution vote from a Belgian perspective and how they regret Belgium’s decision to abstain. They go on to express their concern about the Belgian attitude towards the vote and add that the Belgian government prefers to put its head in the sand, ignoring the seriousness of the health problems in Iraq and the environmental pollution.

When reflecting on the Belgian position, it is worth considering that Belgium hosts both the NATO’s political headquarters and the permanent home of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels. The latter is NATO’s senior political decision-making body. It is home to national delegations of member countries and to liaison offices or diplomatic missions of partner countries. They make political decisions on a consensus basis. There are approximately 4000 people working at NATO Headquarters on a full-time basis.

In 2003 Belgium and NATO signed an agreement handing the responsibility for the construction of new a NATO Headquarters in Brussels to the Belgian Government.

At the Military NATO headquarters (SHAPE) in Mons, about 3000 people are employed, with a further 3000 family members living at or near the base. SHAPE stands for ‘Supreme HQ Allied Powers Europe’ and some of their tasks include: contributing to the peace, security and territorial integrity of Alliance member countries; assessing risks and threats; conducting military planning; contributing to alliance crisis management arrangements and further military strategies and conducting training programs and exercises.

Belgium’s 1993 ‘universal jurisdiction law’ the so called ‘genocide law’, which permits victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad, has made Belgium a leader in the struggle for international justice. In 2003, human rights groups denounced pressure from the US that led to the weakening of this law. US Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld threatened Belgium, telling its government that it risked losing its status as host to NATO’s headquarters if it did not rescind the law. US officials threatened to move NATO out of Belgium and also threatened to discourage US companies from investing in and doing business with Belgium.