Will Obama Administration Try to Keep Iran Off New U.N. Agency for Women?

By Patrick Goodenough | October 29, 2010 | 5:09 AM EDT

Michelle Bachelet, head of the new agency U.N. Women, addresses the U.N. Security Council in N.Y. on October 26, 2010. (UN Photo by Devra Berkowitz)

(CNSNews.com) – Four months after the United Nations, with much fanfare, created a new agency to promote the equality of women worldwide, it looks set to install Iran and Saudi Arabia onto an executive board responsible for approving the agency’s projects and budgets.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will actively try to prevent Iran from a leadership position on the new agency known as U.N. Women. It did not do so earlier this year when Iran won a position on another U.N. organization relating to women.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, ruled by strict Shi’ite and Sunni regimes respectively, are frequently listed by advocacy groups as among the worst countries in the world to be a woman.

Their likely elevation onto the inaugural board of U.N. Women will be a direct result of what critics say is one of the practices most harmful to attempts to reform the U.N. – the tendency of regional groups to put forward closed slates of candidates for important posts.

Closed slates in other U.N. elections permitted Libya to win a temporary seat on the Security Council in 2008-9 while countries with poor rights records like Egypt (2007), China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba (2009), and Libya (2010) won seats on the U.N. Human Rights Council via the same route.

In the case of U.N. Women, Saudi Arabia has been nominated for one of two seats on the 41-member board that are set aside – according to the U.N. resolution establishing the body – for developing countries “which provide voluntary core contributions” to the new organization.

Iran is one of 10 countries nominated by the Asia group to fill the 10 seats earmarked for Asia. With the same number of countries nominated as there are positions available, its success is all but assured.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in N.Y. on 9/19/2010. (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

On November 10, the 54 countries making up the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the principal coordinating organ for the U.N.’s socio-economic and related work, will hold an election to populate the U.N. Women board.

ECOSOC is the same body that elected Iran last April onto another U.N. entity dealing with women’s issues, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

On that occasion, despite concerns raised by more than 200 Iranian women’s rights activists that Tehran would use its position it “to curtail progress and the advancement of women,” neither the U.S. nor other democracy on ECOSOC raised an objection. Their failure to do so allowed Iran to be elected “by acclamation.”

Richard Grenell, who served as spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. during the George W. Bush administration, noted later that the current ambassador, Susan Rice, was not present during the CSW vote.

“Not only was our Ambassador not in the room for the vote, she wasn’t even in the building,” he wrote in early May. “Wouldn’t you think that a female American Ambassador would understand the importance of standing up against a country that has some of the most hostile laws toward women?”

Human rights advocacy group are hoping this time will be different.

The Obama administration is a strong supporter of UN Women. A White House document last month on the “new era of engagement” with the world highlighted the fact that the U.S. had been “instrumental in the establishment” of what it called a “vital new organization.”

‘Competition needed to weed out unqualified candidates’

A spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., Mark Kornblau, told the Associated Press this week that Iran’s membership on the board “would send the wrong signal at the start of this exciting new initiative.”

“We and many other countries are concerned by the negative implications of Iran's potential board memberships, given its poor record on human rights and the treatment of women.”

Kornblau did not respond to queries Thursday relating to the stance taken during the CSW vote, and the upcoming UN Women vote.

“Having on the board of U.N. Women Iran and Saudi Arabia, two countries with a dismal record on women’s rights, would send a terrible signal to women around the world,” Philippe Bolopion, U.N. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said in an email response to inquiries.

“It would be another sad example of what happens when regional groups pre-select candidates instead of having a competitive process that would hopefully weed out the least qualified of the candidates,” he added.

“We have made our concerns clear to a number of countries.”

Bolopion said HRW hoped the two countries would not be in a position to obstruct the work of the new organizations in a significant way.

In addition to the 10 Asian countries, the board membership comprises 10 from Africa, six from the Latin America-Caribbean group, five from the Western group and four from Eastern Europe. Another six are earmarked for contributing countries – four for the largest funders to the core budget of U.N. Women and two for developing state contributors.

Officially called the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, U.N. Women will consolidate the work previously done by four separate U.N. divisions dealing with women’s issues. Its first head will be former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.

Women in shari’a states

In countries where provisions of shari’a law are in place, a woman’s testimony in court carries half the weight of that of a man. A rape victim in Iran or Saudi Arabia is required to present four male witnesses to back her claim, failing which she can herself be charged with adultery.

An international outcry recently greeted the news that an Iranian woman convicted of adultery and murder had been sentenced to death by stoning.

A month ago Saudi Arabia led an initiative at the Human Rights Council to dilute a resolution setting up creating a new mechanism to combat discrimination against women. The effort failed by four votes.

A recently-released World Economic Forum report on the “Global Gender Gap” evaluated how well countries have closed gaps between women and men in four key areas – economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival.

Out of 134 countries rated, Iran was placed 123rd and Saudi Arabia, 129th. Of the 20 countries at the bottom of the scale, 17 were Islamic states.

is one of 10 countries nominated by the Asia group to fill the 10 seats earmarked for Asia. With the same number of countries nominated as there are positions available, its success is all but assured.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow