The commission describes itself as the “principal global intergovernmental body” “exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.” In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive their own cars. They also must obtain the permission of a male guardian before they can travel outside the country, work or marry.
These rules can have dire, violent consequences. For example, according to a Human Rights Watch report, Mariam al-Oteibi, 29, tried to flee her abusive family members. Oteibi was captured by authorities and jailed. Another woman was turned in by her family members and jailed for disobedience after she tried to file an abuse claim against her brother. As the report's authors write, “Saudi Arabia has made marginal improvements on women’s rights in recent years, primarily in employment and access to higher education, but such changes have been hindered or even nullified because authorities have allowed the male guardianship system to remain largely intact, enabling men to maintain control over female relative’s lives.”
Despite this, in mid-April, Saudi Arabia was approved as a member of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women for a four-year term, starting in 2018. Twelve other nations were also selected. Membership is determined by the 54 nations in the U.N. Economic and Social Council. Generally, a vote is not called and countries are approved unanimously. In this case, though, something remarkable happened.
The United States asked for a vote on the membership application, a diplomatic way of critiquing the country's record, experts suggested. Though balloting is secret, reporters found that the country received 47 votes — fewer than any other country but more than enough to make it on. No country voted no (something that is apparently impossible under protocol), though seven did abstain.
But that was not enough to soothe enraged human rights activists. Lawyer Hillel Neuer, who runs UN Watch, described it as “absurd — and morally reprehensible,” comparable to “making an arsonist into the town fire chief.”
Others are pushing their respective home countries to disclose how they voted.
So far though, they aren't getting far. Some countries, such as Britain and Sweden, have refused to deny that they voted for Saudi Arabia's inclusion. In Sweden, home of “feminist foreign policy,” Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom would not say whether the country supported the Saudi bid. Her press secretary did tell reporters that it is normal practice to accept nominations made by different regions.
In Belgium, the foreign ministry said that it had been surprised by the vote and that the diplomat who supported the bid made a “hasty decision” without proper consideration. Leaked documents, though, suggest that the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was informed about the vote at least nine hours before it took place. According to the Independent:
The cabinet sent instructions to the delegation in New York instructing them on how to vote and requesting they inform the various candidates, including Saudi Arabia, of their support, according to the documents.
“If we could do it again and if we would have the chance to discuss it at government level, I of course would have argued that we not approve this,” Prime Minister Charles Michel has since said.
The United Nations defended the decision, saying in a statement that it works with all member states to advance gender equality and female empowerment. “Saudi Arabia’s interest in occupying one of the Commission’s seats allocated to the Asia-Pacific region is an indication that the country wants to play an active role in the work of this important body,” it said.