Belgium admits backing Saudi Arabia on women's rights

The Belgian government has admitted supporting Saudi Arabia's election to a UN body which champions women's rights – and now says it regrets doing so. Meanwhile, numerous other countries supposedly committed to gender equality are refusing to say how they voted.

Saudi Arabia has a long history of institutionalised discrimination against women and is one of the world's worst offenders in that respect, but last month it was elected to the UN's Commission on the Status of Women. 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". 

Commission members are chosen by ECOSOC, the UN's Economic and Social Council. In a secret ballot, Saudi Arabia won a place on the commission with 47 out of 54 countries voting in its favour and only seven against. The electoral arithmetic means that at least three EU countries (and possibly more) voted in favour.

In the Belgian parliament on Saturday, prime minister Charles Michel said his government had been informed of the ballot "only a few hours" before it took place. He continued:

"Thus, a vote was expressed by our diplomats on behalf of Belgium. I regret this vote. [Applause]. If it could be done again and if it was possible to proceed with a political assessment at the government level, I of course would have pleaded against a favourable vote. There is no ambiguity in this matter ...

"I regret this vote. We will draw the consequences of this in the future and I have given instructions for a political assessment to be made at the highest level in order for this not to occur again. In short, we are fully determined to promoting the universal values of human rights."

A translation of the full statement is here.

The other EU countries casting votes in the election were Britain, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Sweden. It is still unclear how any of them voted.

In a comment posted on Facebook (translated by UN Watch), Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström wrote said: “The decision on how Sweden would act in the vote for the Women’s Commission ... was not something that was decided at the political level.” She added that the government would reveal how it voted to parliament's Foreign Policy Committee – but the committee's meetings are confidential.

A spokesman for Ireland’s mission at the UN mission said "it is not our usual practice to disclose publicly how we vote in such ballots", claiming that ballot secrecy “facilitates the conduct and management of sensitive international relationships”.

Norway, a non-EU member which boasts of being "one of the foremost advocates for women’s rights in the UN and in the Commission on the Status of Women" is refusing to disclose how it voted – again citing ballot secrecy.

Britain is also refusing to say how it voted

Last week a freedom of information request was submitted to the British Foreign Office by John Roberts. It said:

"Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I would like to ask for access to the decision on the vote cast by the United Kingdom in ECOSOC regarding the candidature of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to CSW.

"Given the salience of the candidature, I assume a decision was taken either at ministerial or at senior official level and instructions were then communicated to the UK Mission in New York. If the decision itself is not recorded in written form (e.g. by endorsement of a submission), I would instead ask for a copy of the instructions sent to the UK Mission."

This brought a Kafkaesque brush-off from the Foreign Office. It said the request should be redirected to the Government Equalities Office in Manchester – a body which appears to have nothing to do with foreign policy.

Although the UN ballot was secret, there appears to be no rule preventing any country from disclosing how it voted. Vote-trading between countries is a common practice at the UN and would probably embarrass a lot of governments if details became public – hence the desire for secrecy. Britain has previously been suspected of trading votes with Saudi Arabia in connection with membership of the UN Human Rights Council.