Backsliding on human rights

The EU and their allies have to get their act together on human rights. Lives are at risk.

The European leaders gathering at the United Nations for the General Assembly
may feel a little smug. For eight years they struggled to persuade George W.
Bush that multilateralism mattered. Now Barack Obama has embraced the U.N.

The United States
has finally agreed to pay off $2 billion in outstanding U.N. dues. Later this
month, Obama will chair a session of the Security Council on nuclear
proliferation – the first American president to do so.

But the last year has seen worrying trends at the U.N. for the U.S. and Europe.
Support for their human rights positions continue to slide, poisoning diplomacy
in New York and Geneva and even threatening to undermine the
U.N.’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid.

Russia and China, having played power politics in the
Security Council on issues like Kosovo and Darfur
in the last years of the Bush administration, have not backed off.

This year they repeatedly blocked European efforts at the U.N. to put
pressure on Sri Lanka
to show restraint and allow full humanitarian access to the suffering during
its bloody victory over the Tamil Tigers. The Human Rights Council passed a
resolution endorsing Sri
Lanka’s offensive. Up to 10,000 civilians

This tragedy was indicative of a wider erosion of support for Western
positions on human rights. Of the U.N.’s 192 members, 117 voted with the
European Union less than half the time on human rights issues in the General
Assembly over the last year. This is almost twice the number of a decade ago.

This decline has been driven by politics, economics and religion. Developing
countries still suspect Western human rights policies are ill-concealed efforts
to interfere in their internal affairs. They resent the fact that the big
economies are tackling the global recession through the G-20 and G-8 rather
than the U.N. Islamic governments exploit U.N. resolutions to assert that
religious values trump individual human rights.

Some fear that the United Nations could return to the dark days of the
1970s, when the Security Council was paralyzed by cold war tensions and the
General Assembly was a pulpit for anti-Western ideologists. The situation is
not that bad yet, but the United
States and the European Union cannot ignore
how debates over values are weakening them at the U.N.

European diplomats are wary of high-level divisions within the Obama
administration between those who favor a firm line on human rights and others
who prioritize engaging with China
and Russia.
But American diplomats have been working hard at reaching out to moderate
African and Asian governments on human-rights votes. They grumble that the
E.U., focused on internal coordination, does too little outreach.

This isn’t entirely fair. The European Commission is developing new ways to
fund human-rights commitments that poorer countries make at the U.N. In the
Security Council, France and
Britain have blocked efforts
to derail the International Criminal Court’s pursuit of Sudanese president Omar
al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur.

But the E.U. has suffered setbacks too. It split over whether to attend the
U.N.’s Durban Review Conference on racism in April – Italy,
Germany and the Netherlands joined the U.S. in
boycotting the event on the grounds that it was anti-Israeli.

Given the chance to review China’s
human rights record in the Human Rights Council, European countries took wildly
differing positions. The British and Czechs said tough things about Tibet. But Hungary announced that “it took pride in being China’s partner
in a common, bilateral human-rights dialogue.”

If the Europeans and the Americans want to stop the U.N. becoming a platform
for their opponents, they need to improve their coordination. The current
disputes over human rights will crystallize over the next two years, as 2011
will see an inter-governmental review of the Human Rights Council. China, Russia and other illiberal powers
may try to set further limits on the U.N.’s human rights role.

The European Union, the United
States and their remaining allies on human
rights (such as the Latin American democracies) should form a high-level
working group to prepare for the review. They should also talk directly to Moscow and Beijing about how
to stop power politics in the Security Council from undercutting humanitarian
aid, as it did over Sri
Lanka. There is no point in celebrating America’s
return to the U.N. if the U.N. cannot help the vulnerable.


Richard Gowan
is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Franziska
Brantner is a German member of the European Parliament.

This op-ed was first published in the International Herald Tribune on 18 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

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