un women rights

Through a secret vote, the UN Women’s rights commission elected Saudi Arabia as a member this week which has raised many eyebrows and drew strong ire from international human rights groups the world over. Many EU nations voted for Saudi Arabia and the backlash from rights groups and many UN officials was swift.

“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.

The Geneva-based human rights organization UN Watch called Saudi Arabia “the world’s most misogynistic regime.”

Most unexpectedly, Charles Michel, Prime Minister of Belgium spoke out on the matter and stated that it was a huge mistake to vote for Saudi Arabia because the country does not respect gender equality and quickly placed the blame on its Foreign Minister’s ‘hasty decision.’ He expressed regret on Belgium’s role.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap report ranked Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries for gender equality. It is the only country in the world where women are prohibited from driving and are unable to obtain a driving license. Yet, it is now elected for a term of four years to the commission. Saudi Arabia was backed by 47 of 54 nations.

Both the UK and the USA’s missions to the United Nations declined to comment on their vote. Belgium’s disclosure of its vote and the sentiments following it will put pressure on other countries as well to follow suit.

The Prime Minister has emphasized the importance of other countries doing so. He thinks Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth should not overshadow the fact that women rights are blatantly being abused in the kingdom and by electing it to the Women’s rights commission, the U.N. is legitimizing Saudi Arabia’s contempt for basic women’s rights. He also said Belgium will not be a party to it. In his opinion, the U.N. has actually elected the world’s biggest oppressor of women to promote their empowerment and gender equality worldwide which is completely absurd.

Charles Michel was in the eye of the storm when his fellow parliamentarians and politicians raised questions over the country’s decision to vote in favor of Saudi Arabia. Especially targeted was the country’s Foreign Minister for not being aware of the country’s stance on the matter. Extensive media coverage proved to be fuel to fire on the matter.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has lately given minor freedom to its women by announcing to increase its women workforce by 30% as part of the country’s 2030 vision. KSA also sent its first-ever contingent of female athletes to the Summer Olympics in 2012.

Although women are still not allowed to drive and traveling without a guardian is prohibited, the country is slowly recognizing women rights and showing some flexibility in the matter. Whether it is really heading towards women liberation or these moves are only an eye-wash is yet to be seen in the future.

In response to news of the election, Helen Clark, former administrator of the UN Development Programme and Prime Minister of New Zealand said:

“It’s important to support those in the country who are working for change for women. Things are changing, but slowly.”

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