"The European Union is suffering a slow-motion crisis at the United Nations." That is the stark introduction to a recent report on human rights issues at the UN. It cites the EU's setbacks in getting action on Zimbabwe and Darfur. These stand as key examples of where the goal of multilateral human rights is being frustrated says the report. The report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) shows that on matters concerning human rights, the European Union is losing ground to Russia and China. The report states that in the 1990s votes on human rights issues put forward by the Union had over 70% of support from other members. Now less than half of the members of the General Assembly support the EU's position. In contrast support for China's position has shown a similar sized growth.
Condemnations of Burma, Zimbabwe blocked
A consequence of this is that Europe has not been able to get Security Council resolutions passed condemning human rights violations in Burma and Zimbabwe.
Closer to home the Union has suffered diplomatic "setbacks" regarding Kosovo and Darfur.
The report's authors say this is because Russia and China are showing "their diplomatic skill in playing the UN system". It is also as European allies represent just 20% of UN members. This figure will not really increase as not many European countries remain to be added.
In September a group of MEPs went to the General Assembly in New York to discuss issues such as peacekeeping. Irish MEP Colm Burke was part of that delegation. He said that "the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council are becoming increasingly over-politicised".
UN appreciates EU peacekeeping role
He went on to mention the tendency for countries to stick together: "countries are tending to vote in geographical blocks, and organisations such as the Organisation for Islamic Conference (OIC) either water-down EU motions or vote against them altogether" said the EPP-ED member.
However, during the delegation Mr Burke said that MEPs had received "positive feedback" on the EU's contribution to peacekeeping. He said that the Union had been able to mobilise troops and equipment faster than UN and that Chad was a good "example of how this EU-UN partnership has worked".
In a recent speech the importance of cooperation between the two international players was stressed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He said that "UN-EU cooperation must not be a private club. It should reach out to other regional and sub-regional organizations...to build the global networks required to address today’s crises".
How can the EU's role be strengthened?
The European Council on Foreign Relations says "the EU has to look beyond its immediate bloc to build alliances in the UN system. Many European diplomats argue that the decisive factor in the UN’s future remains the US, and believe that the default position of the EU is in a Western alliance with the Americans".
The report goes on to say that "the EU needs to act as a political bridge, drawing together the isolated US and its opponents in the UN to overcome their current polarisation, and manage power shifts in the UN".
Europeans in New York
At present the European Union is represented at the UN in New York and Geneva by diplomatic missions from all its 27 members. Diplomats from these countries hold over 1,000 internal meetings a year the two cities. European unity between member states on human rights issues is strong as they have not split on a vote in three years.
In addition the Council of the European Union is represented diplomatically by the country holding the rotating Presidency - currently France - and Javier Solana the high representative for foreign affairs. The European Commission is also involved in coordination of policy.
In the legal sense the EU essentially does not have a united presence at the UN. The European Union does not have a legal personality. And even if it will have one with the conclusion of the Lisbon Treaty, it won't be able to join the UN as a whole according to its current Charter, as it is not a state.
In other signs of its commitment to human rights, last week parliament hosted a series of meetings to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal declaration of human rights. The chair of the EP Human Rights Subcommittee Hélène Flautre (Greens/EFA) said that "on paper the EU has a lot of good instruments - they need to be properly implemented".
- Further information :
"A global force for human rights? An audit of European power at the UN"
EU @ UN
Press release: 60th anniversary of Universal Declaration on Human Rights
EU mission to Chad
UN General Assembly