EU Faces Diminished Status in UN Human Rights Debates | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 17.09.2008
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EU Faces Diminished Status in UN Human Rights Debates

A new study has claimed that the European Union is facing a crisis in the United Nations with its influence in human rights issues being undermined by rising regional powers and disillusioned opponents.

The UN General Assembly

The EU has been increasingly undermined on human rights issues at the UN

The growing assertiveness of Russia and China and the increasing alienation felt by Islamic, African and Latin American states are adding pressure on the EU at a time when it is struggling to make its mark on human rights issues at the world body.

The report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) shows that the EU's support in the UN General Assembly for its human rights positions have dropped from 70 percent approval in the 1990s to 48 percent in 2007 and 55 percent in 2008. In contrast, the report shows that Russia and China have gone from less than 50 percent to over 80 percent in the same period.

Recent damaging defeats over human rights issues concerning Iran, Burma and Belarus -- where the EU managed to gain just 80 votes in support of its motions from the 165 members of the General Assembly -- are described in the ECFR study as the EU's "slow motion crisis."

The EU is also seen as a meddlesome body by states such as Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe which have set themselves in opposition after becoming the focus of the EU's interventionist human rights approach.

Meanwhile, Russia and China's doctrine of non-interference in sovereign states has also attracted support from these and other countries as well as in the UN Security Council, leading to more EU setbacks.

Moscow and Beijing have scored victories over the EU in recent human rights efforts to mandate action in Burma and Zimbabwe by arguing that respect for sovereignty trumped humanitarian concerns.

"If Europe can no longer win support at the UN for international action on human rights and justice, overriding national sovereignty in extreme cases, it will have been defeated over one of its deepest convictions about international politics as a whole," the study said.

Introverted EU needs to get out more

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband, center, shares a lighter moment with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, right, and Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn

EU diplomats and ministers meet regularly in New York

The report highlights the introverted EU policy of holding hundreds of internal meetings a year between its own diplomats in New York instead of focusing on outward diplomacy with other UN members.

The EU has also suffered at a UN level from the effects of almost eight years of confrontation with the Bush administration in the United States, the most powerful and influential player in the United Nations.

If the situation in the General Assembly seems dire, the strife the EU finds itself in at the Human Rights Council could even be described as worse. In 2007, the EU's members had to threaten to walk out to stop Chinese-led efforts to block the monitoring of individual countries' rights situations.

In the Council, where the US has no presence due to its refusal to recognize the body, European officials feel increasingly isolated.

Outside of the United Nations, the report suggests that the EU's foreign and immigration policies have created obstacles and barriers between the bloc and many, mostly Islamic, nations. Afghanistan, Bosnia and Turkey are the only Muslim-majority states that can be relied upon to vote with the EU.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference, which argues for limits on human rights in the name of religious beliefs, has become a robust opponent to the EU. With over 50 members, it can usually out-vote the Europeans, and relations are increasingly poisonous.

"This reflects not only disputes over the Middle East, but a fundamental clash over cultural and religious values," the ECFR report said. "The EU needs an engagement strategy to win back the support of the African and Latin American countries that it has lost, and win over more moderate members of the Islamic bloc."

Report recommends re-engagement and re-building

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, right talks during the ministerial preparatory meeting for the second EU-Africa summit

The EU is advised to engage more with Africa

The ECFR offered some possible solutions to the EU's dilemma, including transparency-building measures such as an annual European Commission report on EU voting and coalition-building at the UN.

The report also recommended the EU appoints two or three new EU officials to coordinate UN diplomacy with third countries, backed up by a panel of "senior Europeans" to draft and review strategies.

The EU should also build on its existing agreements with nations which have been alienated to rebuild trust, the report suggested. The ECFR recommended the expansion of the Cotonou Agreement -- a long-standing development accord with African and Caribbean countries -- to re-engage opposing nations from those regions.

Many African and Asian states abstain on a large percentage of human rights votes and a more outward-looking EU might pick up these swing voters fairly easily, the report said. For now, potential African allies often suspect that the EU's agenda has colonialist overtones, as revealed in clashes over Zimbabwe and the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudan's president.

The report is sure to make for uncomfortable reading in the European Union. It is clear that the stakes are high and the bloc has much to lose. If the EU cannot regain the initiative at the UN, its claim to be a global force for human rights will be sadly diminished, the report said.

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