Following James’ post on the 63rd session of the General Assembly opening this week, it is worth taking a look at the report A Global Force for Human Rights? published this week by the think tank European Council on Foreign Affairs. The Report, authored by Richard Gowen and Franziska Brantner, argues that Europe faces a tough time in the UN system due to its waning influence. This lack of influence is contrasted by a surge in influence of countries like China and Russia and was highlighted throughout last year when the EU conceded defeat before the Security Council on issues relating to the conflicts in Burma and Zimbabwe. As if this was not enough, further evidence of cracks in the shield of European unity emerged during the recent conflict in Georgia where the EU was strongly divided with regard to what measures to take and on how much blame to place on Russia. Countries like Sweden, Britain and the Baltic States favoured a strong line against Russia whereas Germany appeared to favour a more lenient approach.
The Report correctly points out that the areas in which the EU has lost influence before the UN – those of human rights and justice – are core values on which the EU is founded. In this light, European defeat seems even more regrettable. The Report also points out that the decline in European influence is even more evident before the new Human Rights Council – something which is likely to spur further criticism of the already heavily criticised Council.
So what is the EU to do? It could be argued that the waning of European influence is simply a natural occurrence, which sits well with current developments of former colonial countries emerging throughout the world unsettling existing power balances. Thus, it may even be argued that certain European countries yield too much influence within the UN system compared to their actual political clout and financial prowess. However, given the importance of the issues on which EU’s influence has waned, it is paramount that the EU re-establishes its authority. Respect for basic human rights and the rule of law is simply too important to be put on the backburner. The Report recommends that:
“[the EU] needs to define a new approach to human rights that will restore its reputation as a leader in the field, and develop a new political narrative that involves both creating widespread momentum for new rights initiatives and protecting established principles […] the EU has to emphasise its openness to new ideas and new coalitions while simultaneously defining and defending its fundamental beliefs, not least concerning the Responsibility to Protect. But precisely this combination of openness and determination has the potential to break the mould of UN politics, which emphasises adversarial bloc politics over cooperation”.
This will far from be an easy task for the EU and it could be called into question whether the EU will be able to muster the consensus such an approach will need. Given how the Member States faired during the Georgia crisis, it might not be the case.