Outrage after Saudi Arabia elected to U.N. women’s rights commission

Saudi women in Ethiopia, 2013. (UNICEF/Flickr)

Widespread backlash has followed Saudi Arabia’s election to the United Nations commission for the empowerment of women, with women’s rights advocates citing the country’s notoriety for being the world’s most gender-segregated nation.

Geneva-based human rights organization U.N. Watch was the first to report that the kingdom was elected by a secret ballot last week. The group’s executive director, Hillel Neuer, condemned the decision on social media.

“Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief,” Neuer said. “It’s absurd – and morally reprehensible.”

“This is a black day for women’s rights, and for all human rights,” he added.

Neuer said at least five of the 12 EU states on the U.N. Economic and Social Council must have voted in favor of Saudi Arabia, which received the least amount of votes out of all of the 13 newly approved members.

The Middle Eastern kingdom ranked 134th out of 145 countries for gender equality in 2015. Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system prevents women from doing vital tasks – such as driving, marrying or even leaving the home – without the permission of a male relative.

Women in the world’s most gender-segregated nation also suffer rising rates of domestic abuse, according to reports, and did not gain the right to vote or participate in politics until 2015.

The recent U.N. election secures a four-year term for Saudi Arabia who, along with 53 other nations, will help lead a commission aimed at “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women,” according to its website.

Although unlikely, Neuer says the decision can still be reversed.

“In the Human Rights Council a country that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights can be removed under a specific provision of its charter, and a number of [other]U.N. agencies have these rules,” he told RT News earlier this week. “So we call on the United Nations Human Rights Council to remove Saudi Arabia along with other countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, China and Qatar. They should all be removed for their gross abuse of human rights.”

In addition to being set to join the U.N.’s women’s right group, Saudi Arabia was selected last March to the chair the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, despite heavy criticism from several human rights organizations.

“Saudi Arabia has amassed an appalling record of violations in Yemen while a Human Rights Council member, and has damaged the body’s credibility by its bullying tactics to avoid accountability,” Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last year. “U.N. member countries should stand with Yemeni civilians and suspend Saudi Arabia immediately.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com