Two nations not known as beacons of light for women worldwide are members of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which begins its annual session this week.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was elected in 2014 to a four-year term on the commission, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia begins its term this year.
On its website, the women’s 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, among many restrictions under the Islamic regime, must obtain the permission of a male guardian before they can travel outside the country, work or marry.
Nevertheless, the kingdom was elected in April 2017 to the U.N. women’s panel by a secret ballot of the U.N.’s 54-nation Economic and Social Council, receiving 47 votes.
A report at the time by Human Rights Watch said 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.”
The Geneva-based human rights group UN Watch last April condemned the U.N.’s election of Saudi Arabia, calling the kingdom “the world’s most misogynistic regime.”
“Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch. “It’s absurd — and morally reprehensible.”
Neuer called it “a black day for women’s rights, and for all human rights.”
“Saudi discrimination against women is gross and systematic in law and in practice,” he said.
In a statement, the U.N. defended the election of Saudi Arabia, explaining it works with all members of the global body 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,” the U.N. said.
Six months after Saudi Arabia was elected, King Salman issued a decree lifting the ban on women driving cars, which will be implemented in June.
Saudi Arabia also was re-elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council, where it influences various mechanisms, resolutions and initiatives affecting the rights of women worldwide. In October, Qatar, Pakistan, DR Congo, Afghanistan and Angola were elected to the Human Rights Council.
When Iran was elected to a four-year term on the women’s commission in 2014, Anne Bayefsky, director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust, declared: “This election farce has real consequences.”
She noted that at its session in March 2014, the women’s commission “adopted only one resolution critical of only one country on earth for violating women’s rights — Israel, violating the rights of Palestinian women.”
Human Rights Watch noted in a 2015 report that women under the mullah-led regime are forced to wear in public the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, and married women can’t leave the country without their husband’s permission.
Last year, all 100 U.S. senators signed a letter to the U.N. demanding it change its behavior toward Israel. The senators cited the U.N.’s standing committees, which sometimes “serve no purpose other than to attack Israel and inspire the anti-Israel boycott.”
“Most troubling,” they said, is the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“Charged with shining a light on gross human rights violations, the UNHRC – whose membership currently includes some of the world’s worst human rights violator – instead devotes time to unwarranted attacks against Israel,” the letter said.
The senators noted UNHRC even maintains a permanent time on its agenda to assess Israel “even as numerous other countries, including some represented on the council, commit egregious human rights abuses.”