Who is winning on human rights at the UN?

The gathering of world leaders at the United Nations this week will be punctuated by angry statements on the Syrian crisis. Syria has dominated UN diplomacy for the last year, as China and Russia have blocked meaningful action against Damascus at the Security Council. There is a general sense that the “UN route” to ending the civil war is hopeless. While the Council has performed solidly on other matters – such as averting a war between Sudan and South Sudan – the Syrian mess has damaged its credibility.

But the Syrian crisis has created unexpected energy elsewhere in the UN system. The General Assembly and the Human Rights Council (HRC) have passed a series of resolutions putting pressure on President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime by very large majorities. In most years, as studies of UN voting patterns by ECFR have shown since 2008, the General Assembly and HRC are hostile environments for Western diplomats. China, Russia and developing countries pass regular resolutions undercutting Western human rights agendas. Now the tables have been turned and China and Russia are on the defensive.

Ted Piccone of The Brookings Institution argues that the US and its democratic allies have ensured that “human rights is rising on the agenda of the international community and leading to surprising, albeit slow, progress.” Others are more skeptical. UN Watch, an advocacy group that takes a harsh line on the UN, complains that repressive regimes from Angola to China are still welcome to sit on the HRC without any censure.

To help adjudicate between these two positions, and explore what they mean for European foreign policy, ECFR has updated its analysis of voting patterns and debates at the UN. The evidence suggests that there is a genuine shift towards Western human rights positions in UN forums, extending beyond the Syrian case, but that this is built on fragile foundations. To keep up the pressure on Syria, the EU and U.S. have worked closely with Arab governments, such as Saudi Arabia, that have troubling human rights records of their own. If China and Russia are in a vulnerable position in General Assembly and HRC debates, it is not clear that they care. Russia in particular seems happy to be unpopular at the UN.

New dynamics in the General Assembly and Human Rights Council?

Is a new diplomatic coalition emerging around human rights issues at the UN? The evidence is mixed. Since 2008, ECFR has calculated an annual “voting coincidence score”, which provides a measure of the overall support from non-EU states for European positions on human rights in the General Assembly (the methodology behind our work is available here). This year, we found just 38% support for European positions – whereas China and Russia received 65% support in the same votes, and the US score is almost identical to that for the EU. This is a marginally worse result for the EU than in 2010-2011, when it managed a coincidence score of 44% and the Chinese and Russians were just below 60%.

But the figures don’t tell the full story, as they are skewed by votes on thematic issues, such as the right to development and the links between racism and Zionism, where there are old ideological divisions between the West and developing countries. When we look at votes dealing with human rights abuses and crises in individual countries – typically a higher priority for the EU – the picture is markedly better.

Overwhelming numbers of countries have backed General Assembly resolutions concerning Syria. In December, the Assembly passed a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Syria by 133 votes to 11 against. In February it passed a tougher resolution calling for a political transition and for Ban Ki-moon to appoint an envoy for the crisis by 137 votes in favor to 12 against. In August, after Security Council diplomacy on the crisis came off the rails, the Council passed a further resolution by 133 to 12 votes. This document both called for a transition and deplored the Council’s continuing failure to act.

In all cases the EU and U.S. supported the resolutions. The few opponents included predictably anti-Western powers such as Cuba and Belarus. China and Russia voted against the two resolutions calling for a political transition, but abstained on the one resolution with a narrower focus on human rights.

Encouragingly, Brazil, India and South Africa mainly supported these resolutions, having previously adopted an equivocal stance towards events in the Syria crisis in 2011 when all three members sat on the Security Council.i Some Western diplomats had concluded that these powers had made a strategic choice to support Moscow and Beijing rather than the West, but as Franziska Brantner and I argued for ECFR last year, IBSA’s position was in flux – their volte face on Syria confirms that view.

However, the scale of the majority in favor of the Syria resolutions was partly attributable to the fact that many Arab states that typically do not vote with Western countries on human rights issues – including Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – threw their weight behind them. The Saudis and Gulf Arab states not only shaped and supported these resolutions but used their economic clout to persuade other governments to join them, even sending blunt messages to big powers including China and India about the potential damage of supporting the Syrian government. Almost all members of the Arab League joined the campaign: Sudan, usually among the West’s fiercest foes, voted against Assad.ii

The prominence of the Arab states in driving General Assembly diplomacy over Syria (reinforced by the fact that a Qatari official held the Assembly’s one-year presidency) raises questions about the forces at work at the UN in this crisis. Many of the Arab governments that played a major role in UN diplomacy still have very poor domestic human rights records. And some, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have also reportedly taken a leading part in providing military support to Syria’s rebels. Their primary goal has been to hurt President Assad, their regional opponent and ally of Iran. Saudi Arabia had to withdraw an initial version of the August General Assembly resolution because it was too blunt in its call for regime change – Brazil and other Latin American countries objected. The majorities for resolutions on Syria may say more about Middle Eastern power struggles than wider human rights commitments.

But there have been glimmers of progress in diplomacy on other countries on the General Assembly’s agenda. In recent years, the EU and U.S. have supported annual resolutions tackling the state of human rights in Myanmar, Iran and North Korea. Although the number of countries voting in favor of the Burmese resolution remained roughly level over the last two years, the number backing the Iran resolution jumped from 78 to 89 and that on North Korea from 106 to 123. Most of the Arab countries that supported the Syrian resolutions did not back the West in any of these cases (Gulf Arab countries avoid taking on Iran directly at the UN) although Libya and Tunisia did vote for them. U.S. and European diplomats can take credit for building up human rights coalitions beyond Syria in the General Assembly.

The same is true at the Human Rights Council. In Geneva, there has been a powerful focus on Syria. Arab governments were initially wary of pursuing Syria through the HRC in 2011, but EU members raised the crisis in Geneva from an early stage. Their Arab allies have since come on board (as in New York, India also initially opposed efforts to pressure Syria at the HRC, but has since changed its position.)

After the Houleh massacre, in which pro-government forces slaughtered one hundred civilians including children, European members of the HRC called for a special session on 1 June, which resulted in resolution condemning the incident backed by 41 states (including Qatar and Saudi Arabia) with only China, Cuba and Russia voting against. Other votes on Syria have been similarly lopsided, encouraging the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to keep up an assertive approach to Damascus.

But, as in the General Assembly, there has also been progress on issues beyond Syria. The U.S. and Europe secured a resolution authorizing an expert to track human rights in Belarus over Russian objections.iii Bahrain submitted to an extensive examination of its repression of protests in 2011 through the Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism designed to track each country’s performance on human rights on a regular basis (although it accepted over hundred proposed reforms, their implementation is not yet guaranteed). And Sudan was persuaded to drop a run for a seat on the HRC.

Overall, there is enough evidence to conclude that both the General Assembly and the HRC have been edging the West’s way in the last year – even if this has been in considerable part due to hard-headed diplomacy over Syria. But many of the initiatives launched in these forums were reactions to breakdowns in the Security Council, which ensured that the UN could not save Syria from civil war.

The Security Council and Syria

The Security Council’s divisions over Syria have received so much coverage that they do need to be retold in detail. But an analysis of Council debates over Syria underlines how hard it can be for Europeans and their allies to drive policies through the UN, raising worrying questions for the future.

At the start of 2012, it was uncertain that the Security Council would have a significant role in the Syrian crisis. China and Russia had vetoed one Western resolution threatening Damascus with sanctions – tabled by European members despite U.S. doubts – in October 2011. The Arab League had taken the lead in trying to resolve the crisis. But the failure of its peace plan and monitoring mission forced the issue back to the UN. When the Western bloc launched another resolution backing the League’s plan in February, implying that President Assad should resign, China and Russia once again cast their vetoes.

From February onwards, China and Russia were isolated in the Council. In October 2011, the IBSA trio had abstained on the European-backed resolution. But in February India and South Africa voted with the West (Brazil’s term on the Council had ended in December 2011).iv Yet the West’s numerical advantage was deceptive. Both European and American diplomats had concluded that Russia’s influence in Syria was essential to any peace deal, meaning that they continued to court Moscow.

The result was the compromise by which the Security Council lent its support to Kofi Annan’s efforts as joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria. The Council backed a six-point peace plan supported by Annan and mandated the UN Supervision Mission Syria (UNSMIS) to help implement it. Yet it was clear from an early stage that Russia would only give Annan a minimal degree of assistance and the Syrian regime was not prepared to negotiate in good faith. U.S. officials quickly lost faith in the UN process but their European counterparts argued that it should continue, largely due to a lack of other viable options.

As Annan’s diplomacy went adrift, Western officials debated how to avoid another breakdown in the Security Council. In June, the foreign ministers of an “Action Group” consisting of the permanent five members of the Council, Turkey and Arab powers, met in Geneva. It was obvious beforehand that there was little scope for real agreement. But the Western ministers present did not want a total failure and agreed to a proposal for a political transition that did not explicitly require President Assad to resign. It quickly became clear that neither the Syrian government nor opposition took this seriously. European diplomats grumbled that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had utterly out-witted their ministers.

But by now rising violence on the ground was eclipsing any remaining chances for diplomacy. UNSMIS had lost the ability to operate freely. The Syrian regime was treating Annan with increasingly obvious contempt. In July, the Europeans and U.S. returned to the Security Council with another resolution threatening President Assad with sanctions if his forces did not cease operations. China and Russia duly used their vetoes for a third time, and Annan announced his resignation some weeks later. A French effort to convene a ministerial Security Council meeting in August achieved little – neither Hillary Clinton nor her Russian and Chinese counterparts agreed to attend, and the focus was on humanitarian issues.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has chosen another veteran negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, to replace Annan. But as Brahimi himself has admitted, the level of violence in Syria makes negotiating any peace deal extremely hard. As I have argued elsewhere, this crisis is likely to be resolved on the battlefield.

What are the lessons of this dismal story for European diplomacy? The most worrying is that China and Russia appear to be willing to accept a high degree of reputational damage in the UN. Throughout the crisis, European officials have hoped that Moscow and Beijing would “see sense” over Syria at some point. There have sometimes been hopes that China – concerned by the potential loss of important friends and energy suppliers in the Middle East – might eventually break with Russia on the crisis.

In private, some Western diplomats say that they believe the Chinese have at least persuaded the Russians to moderate their positions. There is also anecdotal evidence that China has tried to avoid major disagreements over other items on the UN agenda, such as fragile states in Africa, to avoid compounding the tensions over Syria. But there has been no sign of any serious Sino-Russian split.

Russia, meanwhile, has repeatedly dropped hints that it could moderate its position to win itself time. During the February debates on Syria, Russian officials in New York indicated (whether honestly or duplicitously) that they wanted to avoid a diplomatic breakdown. But after discussions in Moscow Russia decided to confront the West instead. At the Geneva meeting in June, Foreign Minister Lavrov played on his Western counterparts’ desire for some sort of agreement to shape a hollow bargain.

In the face of this obstructionism, the Europeans and U.S. have used all diplomatic channels available to keep up pressure on Moscow and Beijing. The series of General Assembly and HRC resolutions set out above were largely designed to shame Russia and China, and European diplomats have repeatedly raised human rights concerns in the Security Council too. We have seen that India, Brazil and South Africa all changed their positions on Syria as the crisis depended, but China and Russia seem immune.

There are three likely reasons for this. The first is that China and Russia may have concluded that Western powers were so deeply invested in dealing with the Syrian crisis through the UN that they would keep up diplomacy at all costs. Secondly, the Chinese and Russians may have feared that a display of weakness in the face of criticism from the General Assembly or HRC would undermine their prestige in the Security Council. They believe that their failure to block the Libyan war in 2011 did them lasting damage. (And, after all, the U.S. routinely faces and ignores criticism from the General Assembly and HRC for its support for Israel.) Finally, they may simply have concluded that the reputational damage involved was not sufficiently significant to take seriously – China, especially, could simply afford to shrug off attacks.

Conclusion: does soft power matter at the UN?

The Syrian crisis has demonstrated significant shifts in the balance of power at the UN. When ECFR first published a report on the EU and the UN in 2008, we argued that the EU was losing the competition for soft power in New York and Geneva. Although Europeans continued to pay a large part of the UN’s budget and had entrenched privileges in the Security Council, they were gradually seeing their influence on human rights issues in the General Assembly wane and were on the defensive in the HRC. They were frequently clashing with Muslim states, while China and Russia were gaining leverage across the UN.

At that time, the Bush administration still adopted a semi-detached approach to multilateral institutions. Since 2009, the Obama administration has adopted a much more engaged posture and the U.S. and Europeans have gradually strengthened their position at the UN. Bargains have been struck with Muslim countries over contentious debates on religious values and human rights, and new initiatives have been launched on topics including gay rights. If progress on these issues has often been gradual, the Arab Spring and Syrian crisis precipitated an escalation of human rights diplomacy at the UN.

Yet, as this survey has shown, this has two limitations. Firstly, the price of success has been building human rights alliances with countries that have poor human rights records at home. This has been a matter of pragmatic diplomacy, but it may be hard to sustain long-term cooperation on this basis alone.

Secondly, the last year’s events suggest that this new level of cooperation and soft power at the UN is still not sufficient to reshape the thinking of China and Russia – and if they find themselves under attack at the UN they could actually become more obstructive in the Security Council rather than back down.

The events of the last year have created many new openings for European powers, the U.S. and their allies to advance human rights issues at the UN. The EU and U.S. have shown an ability to maneuver diplomatically and work successfully across the UN system that they seemed at risk of losing five years ago. But if the result is that China and Russia increasingly refuse to deal with first-order crises through the Security Council – as has been the case with Syria – then the UN is still in very serious trouble.

i With some exceptions: India and South Africa abstained on the December human rights resolution, but voted in favor of that calling for a political transition. India abstained on the August resolution.

ii A prominent dissenter was Algeria, which has opposed the drive to remove Assad.

iii There was unanimous support for a similar expert to monitor Eritrea.

iv Ironically, Brazil was the IBSA country closest to the West in 2011.

The author thanks Tristan Drisbach for assistance in analyzing UN voting data.

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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