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UN picks Saudi Arabia to lead women’s rights forum despite ‘abysmal’ record

The opening of the 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN headquarters in New York on 11 March 2024. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock
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Saudi Arabia was selected to chair the UN committee tasked with advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment globally, following an unopposed candidature denounced by human rights organisations for the kingdom’s “abysmal” record on women’s rights.

At the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York on Wednesday, there was no opposition and no competitor for the position of chair, thus Abdulaziz Alwasil, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, was elected by “acclamation.”

Alwasil was endorsed by the group of Asia-Pacific states on the commission. When the outgoing chair, the Filipino envoy to the UN, Antonio Manuel Lagdameo, asked the 45 members if they had any objections there was silence in the chamber.

“I hear no objection. It is so decided,” Lagdameo said.

Normally a country holds the chair for two years, but the Philippines was put under pressure from other members of the Asia group to split its tenure and pass the post on to another country after one year. Bangladesh was expected to take over but late in the process, Saudi Arabia stepped in and lobbied for the chair, in what is widely seen as an attempt to burnish the kingdom’s image.

Human rights groups quickly pointed to the irony of the CSW being led by a country in which the gap between men’s and women’s rights, even on paper, is so wide.

Sherine Tadros, the head of the New York office of Amnesty International, pointed out that Saudi Arabia will be in the chair next year, on the 30th anniversary of the Beijing declaration, a landmark blueprint for advancing women’s rights globally.
“Whoever is in the chair, which is now Saudi Arabia, is in a key position to influence the planning, the decisions, the taking stock, and looking ahead, in a critical year for the commission,” Tadros said. “Saudi Arabia is now at the helm, but Saudi Arabia’s own record on women’s rights is abysmal, and a far cry from the mandate of the commission.”

The Saudi mission to the UN did not respond to a request for comment, but Saudi officials have pointed to a “personal status” law established in 2022 as evidence of progress in women’s rights.

However, the law stipulates that a woman has to obtain a male guardian’s permission to marry. Under the law, a wife has to obey her husband in a “reasonable manner”, while her husband’s financial support is dependent on the wife’s “obedience”.

Refusal to have sex with her husband, live in the marital home or travel with him without a “legitimate excuse” can also justify the withdrawal of financial support under the law. Amnesty International said a leaked draft of a forthcoming new penal code “fails to protect women and girls from all forms of gender-based violence”.

“Saudi Arabia’s election as chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women shows shocking disregard for women’s rights everywhere,” Louis Charbonneau, UN director at the Human Rights Watch (HRW), said.

“A country that jails women simply because they advocate for their rights has no business being the face of the UN’s top forum for women’s rights and gender equality. Saudi authorities should demonstrate that this honor was not completely undeserved and immediately release all detained women’s rights defenders, end male guardianship and ensure women’s full rights to equality with men.”

Charbonneau said HRW tried to lobby other countries among the current 45 CSW members, which include states with much better records on women’s rights like the Netherlands, Japan, Portugal and Switzerland.

“If they all raised a big enough stink, then it wouldn’t happen,” he said. “But everyone is just quiet. Someone could call a vote, and no one seems to want to do that either, which strikes me as ridiculous.”

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Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury is the Editor of The Daily Dazzling Dawn. Previously, he has been serving in important positions in all the famous national dailies of the Bangladesh since the nineties. He has played a commendable role in journalism by participating in various events at the national and international levels. United Nations Conference, World Climate Conference, SAARC Summit are notable among them.

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