The multilateral human rights policy of the European Union (EU) is predicated on the presumption that the human rights it promotes are universally understood. Yet, the liberal international order which underpinned these norms is in decline and the world is witnessing a shift to new modes of multilateral engagement – modes in which the EU’s vision of human rights is not necessarily the set standard. By analysing qualitative data from two case studies, this paper sets out to identify the conditions in which the EU can act normatively in these new modes of multilateralism. The paper identifies two major trends that have emerged in multilateral human rights promotion: new diplomacy and multilateralism 2.0, whose intersections form what this paper labels as rejuvenated multilateralism. It is this concept which serves as a conceptual basis for addressing the research question. This paper argues that conditions in which the EU can act normatively in configurations of rejuvenated multilateralism are determined by normative ethics. In more concrete terms, the degrees of accountability and civil society ownership shape the ability of the EU to normatively promote human rights. The findings of two case studies on multilateral human rights promotion in Africa demonstrate that the EU is best placed to act normatively when there are high levels of accountability and ownership by civil society organisations. These findings have implications both for the study of EU human rights promotion and for the EU approach to multilateralism more generally. They suggest that the EU must champion its causes by ‘leading from behind’.
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