Home » UN picks Saudi Arabia to lead women’s rights forum despite ‘abysmal’ record

UN picks Saudi Arabia to lead women’s rights forum despite ‘abysmal’ record

Kingdom chosen to chair Commission on Status of Women after unopposed bid, to dismay of human rights groups

by Narges Mohammadi

Saudi Arabia has been chosen as the chair of the UN commission that is supposed to promote gender equality and empower women around the world, after an unopposed bid for leadership condemned by human rights groups because of the kingdom’s “abysmal” record on women’s rights.

The Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdulaziz Alwasil, was elected as chair of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), by “acclamation” on Wednesday, as there were no rival candidates and no dissent at the CSW’s annual meeting in New York.

Alwasil was endorsed by the group of Asia-Pacific states on the commission. When the outgoing chair, the Filipino envoy to the UN, Antonio Manuel Lagdameo, asked the 45 members if they had any objections there was silence in the chamber.

“I hear no objection. It is so decided,” Lagdameo said.

Normally a country holds the chair for two years, but the Philippines was put under pressure from other members of the Asia group to split its tenure and pass the post on to another country after one year. Bangladesh was expected to take over but late in the process, Saudi Arabia stepped in and lobbied for the chair, in what is widely seen as an attempt to burnish the kingdom’s image.

Human rights groups quickly pointed to the irony of the CSW being led by a country in which the gap between men’s and women’s rights, even on paper, is so wide.

Sherine Tadros, the head of the New York office of Amnesty International, pointed out that Saudi Arabia will be in the chair next year, on the 30th anniversary of the Beijing declaration, a landmark blueprint for advancing women’s rights globally.

“Whoever is in the chair, which is now Saudi Arabia, is in a key position to influence the planning, the decisions, the taking stock, and looking ahead, in a critical year for the commission,” Tadros said. “Saudi Arabia is now at the helm, but Saudi Arabia’s own record on women’s rights is abysmal, and a far cry from the mandate of the commission.”

The Saudi mission to the UN did not respond to a request for comment, but Saudi officials have pointed to a “personal status” law established in 2022 as evidence of progress in women’s rights.

However, the law stipulates that a woman has to obtain a male guardian’s permission to marry. Under the law, a wife has to obey her husband in a “reasonable manner”, while her husband’s financial support is dependent on the wife’s “obedience”.

Refusal to have sex with her husband, live in the marital home or travel with him without a “legitimate excuse” can also justify the withdrawal of financial support under the law. Amnesty International said a leaked draft of a forthcoming new penal code “fails to protect women and girls from all forms of gender-based violence”.

“Saudi Arabia’s election as chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women shows shocking disregard for women’s rights everywhere,” Louis Charbonneau, UN director at the Human Rights Watch (HRW), said.

“A country that jails women simply because they advocate for their rights has no business being the face of the UN’s top forum for women’s rights and gender equality. Saudi authorities should demonstrate that this honor was not completely undeserved and immediately release all detained women’s rights defenders, end male guardianship and ensure women’s full rights to equality with men.”

Charbonneau said HRW tried to lobby other countries among the current 45 CSW members, which include states with much better records on women’s rights like the Netherlands, Japan, Portugal and Switzerland.

“If they all raised a big enough stink, then it wouldn’t happen,” he said. “But everyone is just quiet. Someone could call a vote, and no one seems to want to do that either, which strikes me as ridiculous.”

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office pointed out that Britain was not a CSW member and therefore had no role in the selection of the chair. In a statement, it added: “We continue to engage closely with the Saudi authorities on women’s rights issues.”

Source: Guardian

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