Unnamed Democracies Voted Saudi Arabia onto UN’s Top Gender Equality Body

By Patrick Goodenough | April 24, 2017 | 4:22 AM EDT

Saudi women like those photographed in Islamic garb are prohibited by law from driving, and male relatives must approve any travel. (AP Photo, File)

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story relied on outdated ECOSOC membership details, still on the official website. The story has been updated to reflect accurately the current membership.)

(CNSNews.com) – When an influential U.N. commission last week voted to fill 13 vacancies on the top U.N. body dealing with gender equality and the advancement of women, 47 out of 54 countries agreed that Saudi Arabia deserved a slot from 2018-2022.

Under the cover of a secret ballot, only seven countries voting at the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meeting in New York on Wednesday did not write Saudi Arabia’s name down on their ballot papers.

Around 23 of the 54 ECOSOC members are liberal democracies, including the United States, Australia, Brazil, Japan and 10 members of the European Union (plus three Western European countries not in the E.U.)

U.N. Watch, a human rights-focused monitoring group, pointed out that, at the very least, several European democracies therefore gave the oil-rich kingdom the green light to be on the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

CNSNews.com has contacted all 13 of the relevant European member-states’ missions in New York, asking if they would be prepared to make their vote public. As and when missions reply, their responses will be appended to the end of this news story.

The 10 E.U. members are Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The three non-E.U. European members are Andorra, Bosnia and Norway.

Saudi Arabia this year holds the fourth-lowest spot of 144 countries graded annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF) for gender equality.

Only Syria, Pakistan and Yemen fared worst in the rankings, which measure gaps between women and men in the areas of political empowerment, economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, and health and survival.

In the WEF rankings, Saudi Arabia’s record on gender equality has become relatively worse in recent times – it dropped from 134th place out of 145 countries rated in 2015 to 141st out of 144 last year.

Describing Saudi Arabia as “the world’s most misogynistic regime,” U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer called the kingdom’s discrimination against women “gross and systematic in law and in practice.”

“Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian who makes all critical decisions on her behalf, controlling a woman’s life from her birth until death,” he said. “Saudi Arabia bans women from driving cars. Why did the U.N. choose the world's leading promoter of gender inequality to sit on its gender equality commission?”

U.S. taxpayers account for 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget, plus millions of additional dollars to individual U.N. agencies.

Typically, ECOSOC would have handed Saudi Arabia the CSW seat “by acclamation” – that is, no vote would have been taken – since its Asia group submitted a “closed slate,” nominating the same number of countries as there were available seats earmarked for that group.

On this occasion, however, the United States submitted a request for a recorded vote, prompting the Chinese delegate to ask the presiding officer why “usual practice” was not being followed.

The request for a vote marked a change from the Obama administration, which on occasion allowed questionable candidacies to succeed without a vote, only to criticize the choice later.

When Iran was re-elected onto the CSW in 2011, for instance, neither the U.S. nor any other ECOSOC member raised an objection, and Iran was elected “by acclamation.”

And when Iran won a second consecutive term in 2014, the Obama administration again chose not to object when it had the opportunity to do so. Afterwards, then-ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power voiced “outrage” about Iran’s “election.”

Iran, which has had a seat on the CSW since 2011, also sits near the bottom of the WEF “Global Gender Gap” rankings for 2016, in 139th place out of 144.

Apart from Iran, three other current members of the CSW are among the bottom 20 countries on the WEF gradings – Bahrain (in 131th place), Kuwait (128th), Tunisia (126th).

(Of the bottom 20 countries in the rankings, 19 are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Of the bottom 30 countries on the list, 26 are members of the Islamic bloc.)

This isn’t the first time in recent years that Saudi Arabia has been elected onto a U.N. body dealing with women’s issues. In 2010 it was elected onto the board of the then newly-established U.N. women’s empowerment agency known as U.N. Women. It held the seat from 2011-2013, before winning a second term, from 2014-2016.

Response from European U.N. missions:

Ireland

Elections to international bodies are normally decided by secret ballot. This facilitates the conduct and management of sensitive international relationships. Accordingly, it is not our usual practice to disclose publicly how we vote in such ballots.

However, I can say that our votes are deployed with a view to maximising Ireland’s international influence and our capacity to represent and advance the values and concerns of our people.

United Kingdom

We do not share our voting intentions or voting record.

Norway

In accordance with the Rules of Procedure, the election was held by secret ballot and thus not public.

It's important to emphasize on a general basis that Norway is one of the foremost advocates for women's rights, in the U.N. and in the Commission on the Status of Women. Women's position and rights are on the agenda of Norway's political dialogue with Saudi Arabia, and were most recently raised during Foreign Minister Børge Brende's visit to the country in January this year.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow