BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- The European Union is losing ground on human rights issues at the United Nations to China and Russia, which oppose any interference in countries' internal affairs, a study says.
The report, published ahead of this week's UN General Assembly session of world leaders, urges the 27-nation EU to use its trade and aid agreements with African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) nations to rebuild influence.
"The European Union is suffering a slow-motion crisis at the United Nations," write Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank.
Even though the Europeans are collectively the world's biggest aid donors and the main funders of UN programs, they have suffered defeats on Kosovo, Myanmar, Sudan, and Zimbabwe in the last year and lost control of the Human Rights Council.
An analysis of 10 years of UN voting statistics shows the EU has lost the regular support of 41 former allies on human rights votes, mostly in Africa and Latin America.
Support for EU positions has fallen from over 70 percent in the late 1990s to around 50 percent in the last two years.
The trend in support for Chinese and Russian positions in the same votes has been almost the exact opposite, leaping from around 50 percent a decade ago to 74 percent for China and 76 percent for Russia in the last General Assembly session.
"This reflects not only their outspoken commitment to sovereignty, but their diplomatic skill in playing the UN system," the authors say.
Rift Over Iraq
Rifts between the EU and the United States over human rights and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which prompted the Europeans to withhold support for Washington's candidacy for the Human Rights Council, have weakened the West's position, they say.
"The United Nations has been at the heart of the EU's vision of effective multilateralism, but the EU has collectively failed in adapting to new power trends and in building effective coalitions," says former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, a veteran UN mediator and one of ECFR's co-chairs.
"If it wants to retrain its influence around the world, the EU will have no choice but to develop new ways of winning votes."
The authors argue that Europe must "erect a big tent," building shifting coalitions that can isolate a minority of hard-line states resisting efforts to limit national sovereignty.
The EU could build on the French and British strategy of working through the Francophonie and Commonwealth communities and create a group with ACP nations at the United Nations based on human rights provisions of their Cotonou Agreement, they say.
But with Beijing and Moscow wielding increasing economic influence in developing countries, anti-Western sentiment rife in the Islamic world, and a string of left-wing populist leaders in office in South America, that may be easier said than done.