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Backsliding on Human Rights

September 18, 2009

New York Times Opinion

The European leaders gathering at the United Nations for the General Assembly may feel a little smug. For eight years they struggled to persuade George W. Bush that multilateralism mattered. Now Barack Obama has embraced the U.N. enthusiastically.

The United States has finally agreed to pay off $2 billion in outstanding U.N. dues. Later this month, Obama will chair a session of the Security Council on nuclear proliferation — the first American president to do so.

But the last year has seen worrying trends at the U.N. for the U.S. and Europe. Support for their human rights positions continues to slide, poisoning diplomacy in New York and Geneva and even threatening to undermine the U.N.’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid.

Russia and China, having played power politics in the Security Council on issues like Kosovo and Darfur in the last years of the Bush administration, have not backed off.

This year they repeatedly blocked European efforts at the U.N. to put pressure on Sri Lanka to show restraint and allow full humanitarian access to the suffering during its bloody victory over the Tamil Tigers. The Human Rights Council passed a resolution endorsing Sri Lanka’s offensive. Up to 10,000 civilians died.

This tragedy was indicative of a wider erosion of support for Western positions on human rights. Of the U.N.’s 192 members, 117 voted with the European Union less than half the time on human rights issues in the General Assembly over the last year. This is almost twice the number of a decade ago.

This decline has been driven by politics, economics and religion. Developing countries still suspect Western human rights policies are ill-concealed efforts to interfere in their internal affairs. They resent the fact that the big economies are tackling the global recession through the G-20 and G-8 rather than the U.N. Islamic governments exploit U.N. resolutions to assert that religious values trump individual human rights.

Some fear that the United Nations could return to the dark days of the 1970s, when the Security Council was paralyzed by cold war tensions and the General Assembly was a pulpit for anti-Western ideologists. The situation is not that bad yet, but the United States and the European Union cannot ignore how debates over values are weakening them at the U.N.

European diplomats are wary of high-level divisions within the Obama administration between those who favor a firm line on human rights and others who prioritize engaging with China and Russia. But American diplomats have been working hard at reaching out to moderate African and Asian governments on human-rights votes. They grumble that the E.U., focused on internal coordination, does too little outreach.

This isn’t entirely fair. The European Commission is developing new ways to fund human-rights commitments that poorer countries make at the U.N. In the Security Council, France and Britain have blocked efforts to derail the International Criminal Court’s pursuit of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur.

But the E.U. has suffered setbacks too. It split over whether to attend the U.N.’s Durban Review Conference on racism in April — Italy, Germany and the Netherlands joined the U.S. in boycotting the event on the grounds that it was anti-Israeli.

Given the chance to review China’s human rights record in the Human Rights Council, European countries took wildly differing positions. The British and Czechs said tough things about Tibet. But Hungary announced that “it took pride in being China’s partner in a common, bilateral human-rights dialogue.”

If the Europeans and the Americans want to stop the U.N. becoming a platform for their opponents, they need to improve their coordination. The current disputes over human rights will crystallize over the next two years, as 2011 will see an inter-governmental review of the Human Rights Council. China, Russia and other illiberal powers may try to set further limits on the U.N.’s human rights role.

The European Union, the United States and their remaining allies on human rights (such as the Latin American democracies) should form a high-level working group to prepare for the review. They should also talk directly to Moscow and Beijing about how to stop power politics in the Security Council from undercutting humanitarian aid, as it did over Sri Lanka. There is no point in celebrating America’s return to the U.N. if the U.N. cannot help the vulnerable.

Richard Gowan is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Franziska Brantner is a German member of the European Parliament.

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