A confused EU cannot fight racism

The debacle in the UN could be the precursor of more clashes over human rights, with Europe as a target

First published on www.europeanvoice.com © 2009 European

The UN’s Durban Review Conference – meant to “serve as a catalyst” for
“reinvigorated actions” against racism – has turned into a debacle, not only
for the UN but also the EU.

While coverage has focused on Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s
contribution (a brutal denunciation of Israel even by his standards), the
EU made headlines by splitting over whether to participate at all. Germany, Italy,
the Netherlands and Poland joined the US in refusing to show, arguing
that the summit’s outcome document is anti-Israeli and calls for limits to free
speech in the name of religion. The Czechs have now also withdrawn.

This marks an abrupt setback after recent successes for multilateral
co-operation. In London,
the G20 delivered more than pundits expected. Last week’s Latin American summit
saw US President Barack Obama josh with Hugo Chávez, his Venezuelan counterpart
and his predecessor’s foe. But at the “Durban II” meeting in Geneva, Western positions came back under attack
– leaving the EU looking confused.

Two worlds of multilateralism?

This raises the depressing (if not entirely surprising) prospect that as
governments scrabble for a way out of the financial crisis, two worlds of
multilateralism will evolve.

One world, centring on the G20, IMF and World Bank, will witness genuine
co-operation – as long as protectionism is kept at bay. The second, centring on
the UN, will become ever more poisonous as states try to assert themselves in
high-profile fights over values. 

Ironically, emerging powers like India
and South Africa
that sit down with the West in the G20 for economic discussions may actually
grow more anti-Western at the UN, in an effort to show that they still
care about solidarity within the developing world. And Western countries may
accept this as a price worth paying for economic co-operation.

But the biggest losers in this – aside from victims of human-rights abuses –
might be European governments, which have staked a great deal on spreading
liberal principles through international law. Their “effective multilateralism”
may be coming apart.

In isolation, the events in Geneva
do not represent a defining moment for the EU or UN. The conference had always
seemed more likely to end in confrontation than consensus. But it matches
deeper trends at the UN: as we showed in a report last year, the EU now enjoys
the steady support of fewer than half the UN’s members on human-rights issues.

In recent months, it had looked as if the EU might refuse to participate in Durban en bloc. Two
factors stopped that happening. First, the EU and its allies managed to get
some offensive language removed from the draft text; there were also hopes they
might get the rest cut out.

Second, the Europeans have had one eye on the Americans. Whereas US
diplomats boycotted UN human-rights talks in Geneva in the last years of the Bush
administration, the new team has engaged quickly and enthusiastically. The US will even
run for a seat on the Human Rights Council, where the EU has taken regular
beatings in recent years.

An EU boycott of Durban II would have been unlikely if the US had wanted to stay engaged (although Italy signalled
its intention to pull out early). Washington
only announced that it could not bring itself to go last Saturday. The EU was
left without time to agree on what to do.

The Union has become good at voting together on human-rights issues in New York and Geneva
– but most resolutions involved have limited impact. Now, faced with a far
higher-profile human-rights challenge, the EU has got into a mess. Not only has
it temporarily lost internal cohesion, but it has also risked its relationships
with those countries – primarily from Latin America
– that still side with it on day-to-day human-rights debates.

A catalyst for reinvigorated disunity?

Will this have any lasting ramifications? Some European diplomats predict
that it will be harder to forge unified positions from now on. Others see this
is a temporary problem: once everyone has calmed down, they’ll see the EU has
little choice but to stick together.

Longer-term, “Durban II” is significant for three reasons. First, it shows
that while the arrival of the Obama administration makes multilateral
co-operation easier, it cannot erase all the ideological differences that
bedevil the UN. Obama’s recent emphasis on outreach to the Muslim world did not
defuse all the tensions over rights and religion in Geneva.

Second, it is a reminder that most governments do not fear that a fight over
human rights will do any real damage to their relations with the US, let alone
Europe. Hillary Clinton has stated that human rights cannot derail co-operation
with China; it is unlikely
that officials in Beijing are worrying about how
Durban affects their relations with Poland.

Finally, these events prove that if the EU wants influence at the UN, it
needs a clearer strategy for winning over countries that typically vote against
it. Arguing over whether to attend an international summit is not exactly the
same as setting the agenda.

If the EU wants to set an agenda on human rights at the UN, it has some
concrete options available. One would be tackle head-on accusations that out of
self-interest it avoids the issue of migration in UN forums, by launching a
resolution guaranteeing migrants’ rights.

That would invite domestic political challenges. Perhaps they are too
difficult to warrant the risk. But if the EU is not prepared to take risks at
the UN, international human-rights dialogues will become increasingly like
Durban II: confrontational debates with Europe
as a target.

Richard Gowan and Franziska
are the authors of “A Global Force for Human Rights?
An Audit of European Power at the UN”
(European Council on Foreign Relations,
September 2008).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Parliamentary State Secretary, German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action
Associate Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.