UN chooses Saudi Arabia to champion women's rights

Last week, unnoticed by most of the world's media, Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN's Commission on the Status of Women – with support from at least three EU countries.

The commission is described on its website as "the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women". Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has a long history of institutionalised discrimination against women and is one of the world's worst offenders in that respect.

[This is a corrected version: see note at end of blog post]

Commission members are chosen by ECOSOC, the UN's Economic and Social Council, which met last Wednesday to replace 15 retiring members. Among the group of Asian and Pacific states there were five vacancies, and five countries nominated to fill them: Iraq, Japan, South Korea, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia. 

This meant there was no contest for seats, and in that situation nominees are usually waved through by "acclamation".

However, it was still possible to reject any of the nominees if they failed to secure a majority of votes among the 54 ECOSOC members – and on this occasion the United States, to its credit, insisted on putting the nominations to a vote.

In the event, Saudi Arabia was duly elected for a four-year term with 47 votes out of a possible 54. This was the lowest figure among any of the contenders but more than enough to get it past the finishing post.

The ballot was secret but it's clear from the voting figures that numerous countries which officially pride themselves on supporting women's rights voted for Saudi Arabia.

For example, ten members of the European Union are also members of ECOSOC: Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Since there were only seven votes against Saudi Arabia's nomination, it follows that at least three EU countries (and possibly more) voted in favour.

Suspicion falls on Britain

One obvious suspect in this group is Britain. Last year the British government refused to confirm or deny whether it backed Saudi Arabia's renewed membership on the UN Human Rights Council. More recently, the the British government has been cosying up to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states in the hope of securing lucrative trade deals after leaving the EU.

A couple of years ago, documents released by WikiLeaks suggested Britain and Saudi Arabia had traded votes with each other in connection with elections to the Human Rights Council. A report about this in The Guardian said:

The Saudi cables, dated January and February 2013, were translated separately by The Australian and UN Watch. One read: “The delegation is honoured to send to the ministry the enclosed memorandum, which the delegation has received from the permanent mission of the United Kingdom asking it for the support and backing of the candidacy of their country to the membership of the human rights council (HRC) for the period 2014-2016, in the elections that will take place in 2013 in the city of New York.

“The ministry might find it an opportunity to exchange support with the United Kingdom, where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would support the candidacy of the United Kingdom to the membership of the council for the period 2014-2015 in exchange for the support of the United Kingdom to the candidacy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Another cable revealed that Saudi Arabia transferred $100,000 for “expenditures resulting from the campaign to nominate the Kingdom for membership of the human rights council for the period 2014-2016”. It was unclear where or how this money was spent.

  • This article was corrected on 2 May 2017. Based on an outdated list on the UN website it originally said 12 EU countries were ECOSOC members. Currently, there are only ten. This means the minimum number of EU countries voting for Saudi Arabia was three, not five as previously stated.