Dispatches from the Field: Belgium and Lessons from World War I
Day 1: Dinant, Leuven, Ypres
The Security Council’s visiting mission to Europe and Africa began in Belgium yesterday (9 August) with activities in Belgium related to the centennial of the start of World War I in August 1914. The three towns visited yesterday—Dinant, Leuven and Ypres – all suffered greatly during the war. Throughout the day, the themes of conflict prevention, reconciliation and protection of civilians were emphasised, as Council members reflected on lessons learned from World War I in their interactions with government officials and academics and commemorated the memory of those who died in World War I.
In the morning, Council members’ first stop was the Town Hall of Dinant. Mayor Richard Fournaux told Council members and local press that the tragic events in Dinant— where 674 people or roughly 10 percent of the population was killed by the invading German army on 23 August 1914—evidenced the brutal impact of war on the civilian populations. He further noted that in 2001, 85 years after the violence consumed the town, Germany officially apologised for its siege of Dinant, an important act of reconciliation. Fournaux concluded by noting that the Security Council can have a positive impact on world events, suggesting that the world would be worse off if it had not been created. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant (UK), one of the co-chairs for the Belgium leg and President of the Council for August, addressed the gathering after Fornaux. He said that the Council has succeeded in helping to prevent a third world war, although it has been less successful in stopping smaller scale conflicts.
The visit to Dinant concluded with a tour of the Citadel, a fortress that witnessed fighting in August 1914. It now houses an exhibition on the town’s travails during the early World War I period.
The next stop for the visiting mission was the city of Leuven, where Council members toured the Leuven University Library, which was burned to the ground along with its 300,000 volumes at the start of World War I. (The library was rebuilt in the 1920s.) Council members held a discussion with three academics—Francis Balace, Adam Roberts and Louis Vos—focusing on the issues relevant to the Council’s work, including conflict prevention, the protection of civilians and post-conflict reconciliation. Louis Tobback, the Mayor of Leuven, and Rik Torfs, the Rector of the University of Leuven, also participated.
Council members explored a number of thought-provoking issues with the academics. It was suggested that states must always be vigilant against the potential of major war, as international complacency can lull them into a false sense of security, creating the conditions leading to global conflagration. It was also hypothesised that the advent of multilateral institutions has played a role in preventing the outbreak of a third world war. One of the academics argued that the international system is based on “selective security” rather than “collective security”. He noted that when one or more of the permanent members of the Council have a strong national interest at stake, finding solutions to crisis situations can be challenging. However, when such a political dynamic does not exist, the Council is more likely to come up with constructive solutions to security challenges.
In Ypres, Council members attended the Last Post Ceremony, which has taken place every night since 1928 to commemorate the troops from the then British Empire (and their allies), who died in various World War I battles in the environs of Ypres. During the ceremony, a musical salute is played in memory of these soldiers at Ypres’ Menin Gate, through which troops departed for battle. Council members placed a wreath at the gate as part of the ceremony.
At a dinner following the ceremony at the Ypres City Hall, Armand De Decker, Minister of State, said that an institutional and legal framework exists today that can promote peace and security, adding that the Council is an important part of this architecture. Lyall Grant followed De Decker’s remarks by drawing linkages with the themes that were relevant to the events that unfolded in Belgium in World War I—e.g., protection of civilians, conflict prevention and the destruction of cultural monuments—with the Council’s current work. For example, he noted that nine of the Council’s 15 peacekeeping operations have a mandate to protect civilians, while the destruction of cultural monuments has blighted Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali—all situations on the Council’s agenda. Lyall Grant also emphasised that during the UK presidency this month, there will be an open debate on conflict prevention.
Day 2: Poelkapelle, Poperinge, Ypres
Today (August 10), the Security Council concluded its visiting mission to Belgium with stops at the Lijssenthoek International Military Cemetery, the In Flanders Fields Museum and the Poelkappelle military base.
The Lijssenthoek International Military Cemetery in the Ypres region is the final resting place of over 10,700 soldiers who were killed in World War I. While those buried there represent many nationalities, most (over 80 percent) were from Australia and the UK, states whose diplomats co-led the Belgium leg of the Council visiting mission. During the war, a large hospital adjacent to the cemetery accommodated the wounded/evacuated from the nearby front lines during the war.
Council members were provided with a guided tour of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres which focuses on the history of World War I in West Flanders. It depicts the German invasion of Belgium and the subsequent trench warfare through wartime artifacts, video displays, audio descriptions and battlefield maps. Upon leaving the permanent exhibition, Council members walked under hanging banners which chronologically listed the scores of wars that have taken place since the “war to end all wars,” a reminder of the enduring nature of conflict and the ongoing relevance of the Council.
The final stop in Belgium was the Poelkapelle military base, where chemical weapons from World War I are dismantled and destroyed. During a presentation by an officer at the base, Council members learned that unexploded ordnance is still being unearthed to this day in old World War I battle fields, primarily by farmers and construction workers. Following the presentation, officers demonstrated the procedures that are used to safely dispose of explosives leaking toxic agents when they are found in the field. The Poelkapelle military base is a lynchpin of the Belgian Old Chemical Weapons Program, which is designed to destroy old chemical weapons (i.e., produced before 1925) in a safe way that respects the environment.
In a press encounter at the site, Lyall Grant observed that the visit to Poelkapelle provided Council members with “a feel for the lasting impact of chemical weapons”, which were used for the first time in warfare in Ypres in 1915. He added that chemical weapons are relevant to the Council’s work today, pointing to their use in Syria and the threat that extremists could acquire these weapons. According to Lyall Grant, knowing that unexploded shells are still found in Belgium informs the Council’s work and reinforces the importance of eradicating these weapons.
Tomorrow the Council will be in The Hague where they will have meetings at the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia/International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone and Special Tribunal for Lebanon.