The EU and human rights at the UN: 2011 review

The UN is becoming multipolar, and the EU should take better advantage


The Palestinian drive for recognition as a state by the United Nations Security Council has highlighted Europe's diplomatic weaknesses at the UN – after a year in which the EU also split over how to handle Libya and struggled to put pressure on Syria. 

As world leaders gather in New York, a new report from ECFR argues that the EU has failed to take advantage of growing divisions between Russia, China, India and other rising powers at the UN in order to make progress on key human rights issues.

A unified EU approach to the Palestinian bid for statehood this month could be an important boost for European foreign policy – as well as for the two-state solution in the Middle East.

But as The EU and human rights at the UN: 2011 review shows, Israel-Palestine is precisely the human rights issue that most divides Europeans at the UN.  During the last year, every one of the EU’s splits on votes at the UN Human Rights Council was over this issue.

The review, by Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner, paints a picture of a United Nations in flux as the world changes. Increasingly fluid diplomatic alliances present both dangers and opportunities for Europeans.

  • An increasingly multipolar UN is characterised by shifting coalitions that alter from crisis to crisis.There are signs of growing tensions over human rights issues between the BRICS and rising powers. Even the anti-Western ‘double act’ of China and Russia is showing cracks.
  • Non-Western states are becoming increasingly important partners for Europe on human rights issues. The crisis in Côte d’Ivoire demonstrated that Beijing can be persuaded to support democracy, while South Africa’s support was important on a resolution on sexual equality (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual rights).
  • Over the last 12 months, all three of the EU’s splits on votes in the Human Rights Council have concerned Israel and Palestine. Almost all the EU’s divisions on human rights votes in the General Assembly in the last five years have been on this issue.
  • Overall, support for European positions on human rights in the General Assembly stayed roughly level over the past year, in contrast to the two previous years when it fell. The EU’s “voting coincidence score” remained static at 44 percent – still more than 10 points behind China and Russia despite a narrowing gap.
  • Notable EU successes at the UN over the past year included securing enhanced observer status for itself, and a HRC resolution in favour of investigating anti-LGBT violence.

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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