How MEPs can help save the UN Human Rights Council

A European Parliament debate on the EU?s role on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) comes at an embarrassing moment

This article was published in EU Observer on 28 November 2008.

Next week, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee votes on a report on the EU’s role on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). This comes at an embarrassing moment. The UN has been mocked for spending €18 million on a colourful ceiling for the HRC chamber in Geneva. But the European Union faces bigger problems than weird decorations.

The HRC is a testing-ground for the EU’s commitment to effective multilateralism. It was launched in 2006 with European support in spite American objections that its rules did not exclude human rights abusers.  EU members had tried to promote such rules, but their efforts were misconceived or mishandled.  The U.S. currently boycotts the HRC.

Some European diplomats wish they could stay away too.  The EU and its allies on human rights are typically stuck in a minority on the 47-member Council, and lose close to two-thirds of votes in each session.  China and Russia, along with hardliners like Egypt and Pakistan, enjoy considerable support and have worked hard to halt or limit UN monitoring of human rights in cases like Belarus.

It is too soon to despair. The EU still scores victories on human rights in the UN system.  This week it won important votes on Iran, Burma and North Korea in the General Assembly in New York.  But it remains on the defensive in the HRC.

The EU clashes with Islamic states over religious values and individual rights.  African and Latin American governments that share European concerns over crises such as Darfur feel that the EU ignores their concerns on issues like poverty and migration.

“It’s not the West versus the Rest,” says one European official of the HRC, “it’s Europe versus the world.”  When Sudan wanted to discredit the UN’s rapporteur on Darfur, a respected Afghan doctor and politician, it called her “an agent of the European Union.”

But the EU is not an innocent victim at the HRC.  Its members do not always seem to take the body seriously, ensuring that it doesn’t probe into human rights inside Europe. 

Perhaps because they are so often on the defensive, they have failed to develop a positive agenda, of their own in the HRC, most obviously around the Durban Process on racism.  As elsewhere in the UN system and far beyond, their diplomats spend too much in intra-EU talks and too little listening to others.

So the European Parliament is right to look into how the EU performs in Geneva.  Their intervention is particularly timely for two reasons.  Firstly, the financial crisis will almost certainly make the EU’s job harder at the HRC: “Western values” suddenly look like very easy targets.  If the EU and its allies don’t start talking about how the economic crisis affects people’s basic rights, Cuba and Venezuela will do so – once again leaving the Europeans on the defensive.

Secondly, the election of Barack Obama offers a challenge.  European diplomats expect his administration to at least partially re-engage with the HRC.  But it will not do so without preconditions.  American diplomats will want some evidence that their friends have a plan to make the HRC work better.  Otherwise they won’t bother getting involved.

If the European Parliament can agree on a half-decent plan, therefore, it might just help persuade the U.S. re-connect with the UN.  Fortunately, the report currently being discussed in the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee is a good one, with a sound analysis of the HRC’s problems – and awareness of the EU’s own failings.

Additionally, a number of MEPs have put forward amendments that would strengthen the report further.  As authors of a recent analysis of the EU’s influence on human right across the UN system, we believe that four of these proposals deserve especial attention.

Firstly, it is important that the European Parliament calls on the EU High Representative Javier Solana and his personal representative on human rights, Riina Kionka, to become more closely involved in the HRC.  The bulk of day-to-day diplomacy at the HRC must still be done by national diplomats.  But this inevitably distracts from broader thinking about how to define the human rights agenda.

Mr Solana and Mrs Kionka – and potentially additional envoys selected for this purpose – should work on developing pioneering new HRC initiatives, visiting African, Asian and Latin American capitals to listen and consult on possible resolutions.  Solana and his staff have shown that they can articulate new ideas for the EU’s members, most obviously in the creation of the 2003 Security Strategy.  They can now play a similar role over the HRC.

A second important amendment involves the role played by the European Commission.  Again, the Commission’s office in Geneva cannot usurp the role of member-states at the HRC.  But it can play a facilitating role by coordinating with its offices elsewhere on important resolutions, especially as it has better networks in the developing world than many member-states.

Unfortunately, the Commission is short on staff in Geneva, and does not even have a full-time human rights staffer there.  The European Parliament should push for this to be remedied, with a number of human rights specialists (possibly seconded lawyers) monitoring the HRC.

Thirdly, the European Parliament should call for greater European support to civil society worldwide to scrutinize UN affairs. The Commission and member-states should find money to support NGOs in developing countries promote human rights at the UN.

That should be part of a far wider effort to ensure that Europe is part of a global debate about human rights at the HRC, rather than just talking (unhappily) to itself.  To monitor progress, we believe that the European Parliament should also request that the competent EU Institutions prepare an annual report breaking down voting patterns at the HRC, and evaluating European policy there.

By definition, MEPs understand the need for public debate about international institutions.  If they stimulate discussions of the HRC, they may save it from paralysis.   

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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