Is the EU a global force for human rights?

The EU’s leverage to promote human rights through the UN has dramatically declined over the last decade, our exclusive report


The European Union's leverage to promote human rights values and its vision of a rules-based world order has dramatically declined over the last decade, ECFR reveals in a new report, after analysing over ten years of UN voting statistics.

Click here to download the full report


Since the late 1990s, the EU has lost the regular support of 41 former allies on human rights votes, joining the United States in the group of leading world powers whose influence through the UN is in decline. In the later 1990s, EU positions on human rights were backed by over 70% of votes cast at the UN General Assembly. In the last two years, the level of support has fallen to around 50%.

The trend in support for Chinese and Russian positions in the same votes has been almost the exact opposite, leaping from around 50% ten years ago to 74% (China) and 76% (Russia) in the last General Assembly session. This reflects not only their outspoken commitment to sovereignty, but their diplomatic skill in playing the UN system.

“This paradox has come to the fore in 2008 as the EU has tried to work through the UN on Burma and Zimbabwe, yet been unable to get Security Council resolutions for action. These defeats come on top of previous setbacks for the EU at the UN in cases from Kosovo to Darfur,” the report's authors, Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner, point out.

“This is partially due to geopolitical shifts. But the EU has also been the architect of its own misfortune,” the report says. “Europe has lost ground because of a reluctance to use its leverage, and a tendency to look inwards – with 1,000 coordination meetings in New York alone each year – rather than talk to others. It is also weakened by a failure to address flaws in its reputation as a leader on human rights and multilateralism.”

The EU's decline at the UN is apparent in three key fora: the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and the Security Council.

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

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