Monday, September 14, 2009

EU and the UN, the battle for influence

The EU's ongoing loss of influence at the UN is putting lives at risk, a new paper from the European Council on Foreign Relations argues.
As world leaders gather in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, the paper - The EU and human rights at the UN: 2009 annual review - by ECFR's UN experts Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner MEP warns that the EU is losing its ability to push the UN to respond to humanitarian crises.
Earlier this year, the EU was repeatedly thwarted in its efforts to use the UN to pressure the Sri Lankan government to allow humanitarian aid in during its assault on Tamil areas, which led to tens of thousands of civilian casualties. 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.
The paper - the authors' follow-up to their report last year on the EU's performance in human rights debates at the UN - also reveals that 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.
Gowan and Brantner argue that while the Obama administration's decision to re-engage with the UN following the obstructionism of the previous administration has generated a new spirit of optimism, European governments have failed to capitalise on this new mood and are increasingly allowing their opponents to set the agenda and dominate human rights debates and effectively endorse human rights abuses.
Richard Gowan says:
Obama's enthusiastic engagement with the UN gives Europeans a new sense of hope after Bush. But the EU must avoid the temptation to hang back and hope the US will fix everything - American diplomats want to see that the EU can deliver.
Tragically, EU and US efforts to contain the Sri Lanka crisis through the UN failed due to opposition from China, India and Russia. Up to 10,000 civilians died. The basic value of saving lives is falling victim to power politics in the Security Council.
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 the authors' groundbreaking Audit of European Power at the UN, which revealed a massive decline in European power at the UN over 10 years.
The EU needs to use "tough diplomacy" to deal with the power politics played by China and Russia - and advocate a new Security Council agreement on protecting humanitarian access during major crises.
The EU and the US should set up a working group to co-ordinate human rights positions at the UN - and expand it to include other liberal states.
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.
The European Commission should raise economic rights issues at the UN instead of waiting for G8 and G20 meetings to improve relations with the developing world during the recession.
Richard Gowan is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is based in New York City. He can be contacted at, or on +1 917 975 6629.
Franziska Brantner is an MEP (Green Group), where she sits on the Foreign Affairs committee. She can be contacted on matters relating to this report at
This memo, like all ECFR publications, represents the views of its authors, not the collective position of ECFR or its Council Members. It does not reflect the official view of the Green Group in the European Parliament, or other parties and institutions with which the authors are involved.
For all media enquiries please email or telephone +44 20 7031 1623.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is the first pan-European think-tank. Launched in October 2007, its objective is to conduct research and promote informed debate across Europe on the development of coherent and effective European values based foreign policy.

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