Belgian Parliament should have more say about peace operations

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Each year, the Belgian government sends 4,500 soldiers on peacekeeping missions abroad. The parliamentary scrutiny on these decisions is very limited. My research shows that greater parliamentary participation is needed. That will only be possible if legislation is adapted and if the MPs take their responsibility.

Belgium and abroad

After the end of the Cold War, peace operations have become the main task of many armies. The responsibility of a parliament is traditionally limited as the decision to send to troops is a prerogative of the executive power. Parliamentary scrutiny in advance of the decision would slow down the decision process and complicate the chain of command.

In Belgium the role of the parliament has been unchanged since 1831, when the constitution was written. The constitution states that there is an obligation to inform the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives when the decision has been taken. But neither in the constitution nor in any other law, is there any specification how this should be done. Sometimes it is done by handing out informative summaries, followed by a long debate in parliament, like in the Lebanon case.

But in other cases the minister just repeats some well-known facts that were already in that day’s papers, like in the case of the air campaign on Serbia. During the decisions about the operations in Libya and Mali, Belgium had a caretaker government. This government went to the Parliament to get an approval before committing troops. This relatively new custom will probably be repeated if there is no new government when the decision about the actions against IS will be taken. But there is no legal guarantee for this custom and it has until now only been applied during a caretaker government.

The call for more parliamentary scrutiny is not new. A more thorough scrutiny makes peace operations more democratic and can avoid controversy afterwards. It creates consensus and avoids that a country is too eager to intervene. After a couple of controversial operations like in Rwanda, Srebrenica and Iraq, some Western Europeans countries adapted and enlarged the role of the parliament. Germany, France and the Netherlands changed their laws to valorize the parliament in these matters. A change in the constitution in Belgium, on the other hand, has, until now, always been voted down.

Legislation in Belgium

The research that I did for my master thesis investigated the run-up to the Belgian peace operations in Kosovo (1999) and Lebanon (2006) and it shows that everything went by the book. The obligation to inform the Parliament was followed and the government provided information and room for debate. The Parliament offered broad support (from in and outside the majority) in return in both cases.

The fact remains though that Belgium lags behind. Parliamentary participation is meager and the legal framework is vague and old-fashioned. But there isn’t much enthusiasm to give the Parliament the legal right to vote before operations among the large political parties, apart from the Flemish socialists of sp.a. Moreover, a constitutional amendment is impossible without new elections, probably not before 2019. According to Belgian law, the voter should get the opportunity to express his opinion about a possible amendment via the ballot box.

But a better legal framework for the obligation to inform doesn’t have to wait. Like in the Netherlands the information that the government has to provide could be structured better. This would mean that the Parliament is informed through predefined topics, like the mandate, protection measures for the troops and the estimated budget. A second improvement would be the introduction of procedures for the periods outside the normal functioning of the Parliament, like during parliamentary recess or during a caretaker government.

Responsibilities of MPs

In the UK the Parliament legally has no voice in the discussions about military operations. But in 2013 the government lost a vote over a military deployment for the first time in over 200 years, about the possible intervention in Syria. Since the war in Iraq it has been customary to consult and follow the parliament in the UK. A qualitative parliamentary scrutiny is thus more than a good legal framework. The quality and the relevance of the debate are crucial to make the parliament a partner of equal value of the executive power.

My research shows that the Belgian Parliament doesn’t excel in this domain. Too often the discussions are about what should happen in a utopian world. The Minister of Foreign Affairs for example, was recommended to work on a definitive solution for the Middle East. Recommendationsthat were far beyond the capabilities of the Belgian government were also fairly common, such as recommendations for negotiations where no Belgian negotiator was present.It is even worse when a politician uses the debate to reinforce his ideology domestically. This happened for example when the Flemish extreme right party and the Walloon socialists used Serbian leader Milosevic to point at the risks of respectively socialism/communism and nationalism.

Debates about the protection and material of the Belgian army were rare and the debate was almost never about the precise role and rules of engagement of the troops. Philosophical reflections on the roots of a conflict can be intellectually interesting; they don’t lead to a discussion with a high added value.The image of the Parliament as a “debate club” without any power is only strengthened by it. It is important that the MPs themselves upgrade the role of the Parliament, by not discussing too vaguely and too ideologically and by raising practical issues and proposals. Only then can the custom of consulting the parliament be extended to periods when there is a government in full power.

Conclusion

The Belgian Defense budget is under increasing pressure and an army has to prove its added value more than ever.Yet we can, in the current international context, assume that there will be more operations to follow, after the existing Belgian engagements in Afghanistan, Mali and Lebanon. Proper parliamentary scrutiny and debate are thus more relevant than ever. Consulting the Parliament when there is no proper government is a promising sign but doesn’t suffice. A better legal framework can strengthen the scrutiny, but it are the MPs themselves who can really lift it to a higher level.

Written by Koen Van Dessel, based on his master thesis. He studied Comparative and International Politics at the University of Leuven, in combination with his job as an officer in the Belgian army. This article is his personal opinion, not an official position.

SOURCE: Centre for Democratic and Participatory Governance, September 29th 2014: http://www.cdpg.eu/category/blog/