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Belgium must support UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

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The coalition agreement of the new Belgian government has adopted a new and positive approach to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This is no coincidence, as four out of seven coalition parties in the new government have expressed their open support to the TPNW in recent years. But despite this new political reality in Belgium, Belgian diplomats continue to actively oppose the TPNW during UN discussions.

After 1.5 years of political deadlock, on 30 September 2020 Belgian political parties reached an agreement on the formation of a new government led by Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

In the coalition agreement of the new “Vivaldi” government – composed of social-democrat, Christian-democrat, liberal and green parties- the new government adopts a positive approach to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will enter into force on 22 January 2020. In the words of the coalition agreement, Belgium will:

“play an proactive role in the NPT Review Conference in 2021 and, together with its European NATO allies, will examine how to strengthen the multilateral non-proliferation framework and how the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons can give new impetus to multilateral nuclear disarmament.”

Significant shift

The coalition agreement marks a significant shift in the Belgian position towards the TPNW, as Belgium previously refused to participate in the landmark 2017 negotiations that led to the adoption of the TPNW. The previous government subsequently adopted a hostile approach to the TPNW, and made unsubstantiated claims that the TPNW would undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Belgium’s new approach is also reflected in the policy note of the new Foreign Affairs Minister Sophie Wilmès, which was published on 6 November 2020. In this note, which outlines the main priorities of Belgian foreign policy in 2021, Wilmès pledges to take a “proactive role” on nuclear disarmament in 2021. “At the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, we will base ourselves, on the one hand, on our internationally recognised contributions to nuclear decommissioning verification and the promotion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, on the other hand, on recent developments, including the conclusion of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”, Wilmès promised.

Moreover, four out of seven parties in the new government have expressed their public support to the TPNW in recent years. For example, in January 2019 a proposed parliamentary motion asking the government to “sign and ratify the TPNW”- which was ultimately rejected by the then coalition parties- was supported by both social-democrat (PS and sp.a) and Green (Ecolo and Groen) parties, who are now all in government.

Turn words into action

Despite this new political reality in Belgium, Belgian diplomats continue to actively oppose the TPNW during UN discussions. On 3 November 2020 Belgium (again) voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution that expresses support to the TPNW.

If the new Belgian government wants to turn words into action and to respect its own coalition agreement, it must immediately instruct its diplomats to change course. This can happen in the short term, as the plenary session of the UN General Assembly will again vote on the TPNW resolution in early December 2020.

Only if Belgium changes its “no” vote during the General Assembly, it can credibly examine in 2021 how the TPNW can indeed give new impetus to multilateral nuclear disarmament.