Why is Saudi Arabia heading top UN gender equality forum?


Last week, Saudi Arabia was elected to hold the leadership presidency of the United Nations Gender Equality Forum, Commission on the Status of Women. Even before the elections were finalized, rights organizations were issuing warnings.
“Other countries should oppose the candidacy of Saudi Arabia, which has an extremely poor record on women's rights,” the rights group said. Human Rights Watch (HRW) had written just a week ago.
After the decision came on March 28, he became even more worried. “Whoever holds the chair, which is now Saudi Arabia, is in a key position to influence planning, decisions, taking stock and looking ahead in a crucial year for the Commission,” said Sherine Tedros, head of Amnesty International. ” the New York office told the Guardian. “Saudi Arabia is now on top, but Saudi Arabia's own record on women's rights is disappointing, and far from the Commission's mandate.”
How did this happened?
The Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW, is made up of 45 UN member states. To ensure fair representation, CSW members are selected according to geography, so there are 13 members from Africa, 11 from Asia, nine from Latin America and the Caribbean, eight from Western Europe and other states, and four from Eastern Europe. . Each member state serves for four years. Saudi Arabia, part of the Asia Bloc, is a member until 2027.
Each year, the CSW holds an annual conference, attended by thousands of people, during which an assessment is made of progress towards equal rights for women and a statement – ​​known as an “outcome document” or “agreed conclusions” Known in – is negotiated and published.
CSW also has a leadership “bureau”, consisting of one member from each block. It also has a revolving chair, with each block taking a two-year turn.
Recently, it is Asia's turn, when the Philippines has been appointed Head of Bureau of the CSW. However, since they are the only CSW member until 2024, Manila planned to share the job, allowing another Asia-group country to take over in the final year of leadership. That eventually became Saudi Arabia.
Why did no one object?
Usually members of the geographic group confirm the post unanimously, without any type of vote.
It would have been possible for other CSW members, including the Netherlands, Portugal or Switzerland, to object, human right Watch reported that it lobbied Saudi Arabia to oppose the election. Ultimately, in 2022, Western governments effectively expelled Iran from the CSW during the Iranian government's crackdown on protests surrounding the death of Mahsa Zina Amini, HRW argued.
Louis Charbonneau, UN director at HRW, wrote shortly before the decision, “Diplomats from the UN Western Regional Group privately acknowledged the problems of the Saudi candidacy.” “But they're not planning to protest it or demand a recorded vote, because they don't want to set a precedent.”
How much power does the post bring?
Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed al-Wasel, will lead the CSW's bureau in 2025, the first Saudi diplomat to do so since the CSW's formation in 1946.
“The CSW President-elect is expected to build on the work of his predecessors in leading the Commission,” a UN Women spokeswoman told DW. This includes pursuing the goals of the Beijing Declaration, a resolution adopted by 189 countries in September 1995. It is often described as a milestone in gender equality and marks its 30th anniversary next year.
Critics of Saudi Arabia worry that the country could, for example, negatively influence the UN's position on gender equality at next year's CSW conference.
This year's CSW conference has already “exposed deep cultural and religious divisions between conservative and progressive countries over sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTQ protections,” journalists at Devex, an expert website covering global development work, wrote last month. Was.”
This year, Saudi Arabia joined with other countries – Belarus, Nigeria, Turkey, Indonesia and Russia, as well as the Holy See – to promote conservative family values ​​and ensure that the language, for example, includes LGBTQ Rights or protection for sexual relations Observers said gender-based violence was downplayed or omitted in the CSW's final statement.
“Giving a platform and access and a voice and power to people who are really trying to roll back issues of gender justice and women's rights is a danger and it dilutes the language [on] “The key issues we really want to move the needle on,” Amina Hersi, Oxfam International's head of gender rights and justice, told Devex.
Positive progress or just PR?
The Saudi Embassy in Berlin did not respond to DW's questions, but the Saudi Arabian government often points to recent progress on women's rights.
“The presidency of the state… [is] “Thank you for the special attention and care given to women's empowerment and rights by the Kingdom's leadership, in line with the qualitative achievements achieved by the Kingdom in this area,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency said in a statement. The country's ambitious Vision 2030 plan also supports greater female participation in the Saudi economy.
Lina al-Hathloul, head of advocacy at ALQST for Human Rights, a London-based organisation, believes there may be some potential for positive change. “We believe that international engagement and cooperation can bring positive change, and Saudi Arabia's willingness to engage… can be encouraging,” he told DW.
But, she said, Saudi Arabia's recent reforms mean nothing when Saudi women are still prohibited from behaving or dressing in a pre-determined manner, disobeying their male “guardians” or peacefully expressing political opinions. Can be arrested or detained for.
Al-Hathloul argued, “What we have seen in recent years is that – despite the story of reforms – the discussion about women's rights remains a PR stunt,” which really only serves the state's economic goals. And it's about attracting more Western countries. Investors and tourists.

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