Lives at risk at the UN

As European power at the UN declines, human rights standards drop and lives are put at risk

Europe has always been seen as a human rights champion. It is viewed the world over as model for an open, democratic society, with its governments protecting rights as a given. But the EU is undeniably losing influence at the UN, and its ability to push the human rights debate on the world stage is dwindling with it. And as European power at the UN declines, human rights standards drop and lives are put at risk as the EU is outplayed in power politics.  

Voting patterns show an underlining shift in the balance of power at the UN, as the EU’s circle of friends continues to shrink. Alienated over Kosovo, Serbia voted with the EU less frequently this year, and Georgia and the Ukraine sometimes sided with the US in the event of transatlantic splits, seeking American support in the face of Russian expansion. The number of states most fiercely opposed to the EU’s human rights positions at the UN has swollen to 40 this year from 19 last year. Since the late 1990s when the EU enjoyed the support of over 70% of the UN General Assembly in human rights votes, support of the EU’s human rights position has haemorrhaged: the EU has lost the backing of 13 former allies on human rights votes in the last year – 117 of the UN’s 192 members now typically vote against the EU.

True, the EU remains able to push issues on to the agenda in New York and Geneva. But its foes are increasingly able to decide the results – even turning European initiatives on their heads, effectively endorsing human rights abuses. The tragic example is Sri Lanka. Earlier this year, the EU and the US were repeatedly thwarted in their efforts to use the UN to pressure the Sri Lankan government to allow humanitarian aid in during its assault on Tamil areas. China and Russia blocked EU attempts to force Colombo’s hand in the Security Council, and the EU found itself outmanoeuvred and outvoted in the Human Rights Council. Up to 10,000 civilians died. The basic value of saving lives is falling victim to power politics in the Security Council.

The EU needs to overhaul its diplomacy at the UN so European influence, and hence human rights standards, do not continue to be eroded. “Tough diplomacy” is needed to deal with the power politics played out by China and Russia in the Security Council. The EU should advocate for a new Security Council agreement on protecting access to and intervention in countries where major humanitarian crises and human rights abuses are taking place. And to regain the initiative at the UN, the EU should use next year’s Millennium Development Goals conference to address unfinished UN reforms by tabling agenda proposals now.

Europe needs to fight for human rights at the UN. To do so, it must get its power back. There is a lot of tough bargaining ahead. But as the Sri Lankan crisis earlier this year proved, there is also a lot at stake.


This commentary is based on ECFR’s latest paper: The EU and human rights at the UN: 2009 annual review. The paper is the first of a series of annual updates mapping the EU’s performance in human rights debates at the UN, based on ECFR’s UN experts Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner’s MEP groundbreaking Audit of European Power at the UN, which revealed a massive decline in European power at the UN over 10 years.



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


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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