Late Entry Foils Iran’s Bid for a Seat on Board of New U.N. Women’s Agency

November 10, 2010 - 6:26 AM

UN Women

Update: Iran failed Wednesday in its bid for a seat on the executive board of the new U.N. agency for women, outvoted by latecomer East Timor. Saudi Arabia was successful.


(CNSNews.com) – Iran has some unexpected competition in its bid to be elected to the executive board of the new United Nations agency tasked with promoting the equality of women.

East Timor, one of the smallest countries in the Asia regional group, says it also will run for a seat on the board of U.N. Women.

Earlier the Asia regional group approved only 10 countries for the 10 seats earmarked for Asia on the 41-member board, which will approve projects and budgets for U.N. Women. That uncontested slate would have assured Iran of a spot in Wednesday's vote.

A list of candidates provided to CNSNews Tuesday night shows that East Timor does not have the Asia group’s endorsement. Nonetheless its candidacy offers countries that object to Iran being on the board the opportunity to direct their votes elsewhere.

Queries sent to East Timor’s foreign ministry and its mission to the U.N. brought no response by press time.

Several other countries whose treatment of women has raised concerns among women’s rights advocacy groups do look set to get posts on the board, however.

They include Saudi Arabia, which is not standing on the Asia slate but is one of two countries (Mexico being the other) nominated for two seats set aside for emerging donor countries.

Among others with poor records on women’s rights and equality are Libya, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire, all standing in the Africa group, which has put up a clean slate (10 candidates for 10 available seats); and Pakistan, one of the countries in the running for the Asia seats.

“We are relieved to know that the Asia group is in the end not offering Iran a free pass to the U.N. Women’s board and now has 11 candidates for 10 seats,” Philippe Bolopion, U.N. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said in response to queries Tuesday.

“In our view, what sets Iran apart is not just its dismal record on women’s rights but also the fact that it’s aggressively going after women’s rights advocates who dare to speak out against discriminatory laws in the country,” he added.

“Iran has time and again shown outright hostility to the very objectives U.N. Women was born to realize, and certainly should not be elected to its board.”

Wednesday’s vote will not involve the full 192-nation U.N. General Assembly but the 54-member Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the U.N. organ that coordinates socio-economic and related affairs.

Like other U.N. bodies, ECOSOC is itself constituted along geographical lines, which has an impact on voting patterns: Africa controls 14 votes, the Western group 13, Asia 11, Latin America and the Caribbean 10 and Eastern Europe six votes.

ECOSOC last April ushered Iran into another U.N. entity dealing with women’s issues, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

On that occasion, despite protests by more than 200 Iranian women’s rights activists, neither the U.S. nor any other member of ECOSOC raised an objection. As a result of their silence, Iran got the post “by acclamation.”

The Obama administration, a strong supporter of the new agency, has spoken out against Iran’s U.N. Women bid.

No suitability criteria

Officially called the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, U.N. Women will consolidate the work previously done by four separate U.N. divisions dealing with women’s issues.

Four months after it was established by the U.N. to great acclaim, the prospect of countries with poor records on women’s rights getting seats on the board has caused dismay.

The exiled Iranian rights activist and Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi told a press conference in New York Tuesday that giving places on the board to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia was “like a joke.”

“This is a critical point for this agency, as it starts its work,” she said.

The France-based opposition group, National Council of Resistance of Iran, called Iran’s candidacy “an insult to all Iranian women and all women’s rights advocates around the world” and urged countries not to support the “misogynous regime.”

Thirty-five of the board’s members will come from the U.N.’s five regional groups. The remaining six seats are earmarked for contributing countries – four for the largest funders of the U.N. Women budget and two for developing state contributors (the category in which Saudi Arabia is a candidate).

The only criteria laid down for membership on the board are those relating to regional group and contribution status. The agency’s founding resolution contains no further requirements – for instance, that countries are expected or urged to nominate and vote for candidates with strong records on women’s rights.

“The question of who gets to sit on the board overseeing U.N. Women is a matter that is left up to member states,” Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, confirmed during a briefing Tuesday.

“We respect the right of member states to elect their own members of the board, and of course, it is certainly up to them.”

Haq added that all member states were expected “to uphold fundamental human rights.”

One current measure of suitability against which candidates for the U.N. Women board could be judged is a recently-released World Economic Forum report on the “Global Gender Gap,” a rating of how successfully countries have closed gaps between women and men in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival.

Out of 134 countries rated in the 2010 report, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were placed near the bottom, at positions 123rd and 129th respectively.

Other candidates in Wednesday’s election that scored badly in the Global Gender Gap were Pakistan (132nd place), Cote d’Ivoire (130th) and Ethiopia (121st).

Not all countries were rated; Libya and East Timor were among those not assessed.