Silence From U.S. and Its Allies Allowed Iran to Get Seat on U.N. Women’s Rights Body

By Patrick Goodenough | April 30, 2010 | 5:00am EDT

Logo of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (U.N. Web site)

( – The United States and 12 other Western democracies kept silent this week as Iran was nominated for membership of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), thus enabling Iran to get the seat.

In the four-year period beginning in 2011, Iran will help set U.N. policy on gender equality and the advancement of women.

Iran’s unchallenged election, at a meeting in New York Wednesday, came just over a week after Iranian media quoted a senior Islamic cleric in Tehran as saying that immodest dress and behavior by women was to blame for an increase in earthquakes.

More than 200 Iranian women’s rights activists sent an open letter to the U.N. earlier this week, warning that Iranian membership would be “a serious threat” to the CSW’s “goals and mission,” and that the government would use it “to curtail progress and the advancement of women.”

The task of electing members to the CSW is carried out by the 54-member Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the principal coordinating organ for the U.N.’s socio-economic and related work.

Among 11 CSW seats up for grabs Wednesday, two were set aside for states in Asia, and the Asia regional group put forward just two candidates to fill them – Iran and Thailand.

Had one of the Western countries in the chamber – or any other ECOSOC member – protested, a secret ballot vote would have been called for, putting to the test Iran’s ability to win the required majority of at least 28 votes.

But the U.S., Canada, Australia and 10 European countries raised no objection, and the meeting elected Iran “by acclamation.”

Early this week Iran’s foreign ministry said the Asia group had agreed to support Iran’s bid for membership of the women’s rights body, and implied that this was a concession in return for Iran’s agreement to withdraw its candidacy for another U.N. body, the Human Rights Council.

The prospect of Iran joining the Human Rights Council had alarmed governments which are keen to ascribe credibility to a body that has drawn considerable criticism, not least because its members include countries with poor human rights records.

The fact that no country outside the Asian group challenged Iran’s CWS candidacy suggests that others were willing to go along with the Asian group’s arrangement, in order to see an end to Iran’s Human Rights Council bid.

An ECOSOC spokeswoman, Nancy Beteta, explained by phone Thursday that acclamation votes take place when a regional group nominates the same number of countries as there are vacancies for that group.

Even though there was no competition for the available seats on the CSW, Beteta said that if any delegate had raised an objection to any particular country put forward, a secret ballot vote would then have been called for.

“That’s exactly what [an acclamation vote] means – that no member state objected to the candidate.”

The press office at the U.S. mission to the U.N. was asked Thursday about the decision not to raise an objection to Iran’s nomination but did not return the call.

There was also no response to queries sent to the U.N. missions of Canada, Australia, the European Union (on behalf of eight E.U. members of ECOSOC) and two non-E.U. members from Europe, Norway and Liechtenstein.

The U.N.’s tendency to fill positions by means of “closed slates” that allow no competition has drawn criticism from observers who say that depriving members the opportunity to choose from a slate of candidates allows unsuitable countries to get important posts.

At its session Wednesday, ECOSOC also filled positions on 17 other U.N. bodies, and in only five cases were votes required. Apart from the CSW seat, Iran made its way, without a vote, onto three other bodies – the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development, and the Governing Council of the Human Settlements Program, known as U.N.-Habitat.

‘Women’s rights sold down the river’

Iran’s treatment of women has frequently drawn criticism from human rights advocacy groups and Western governments.

Iranian women, supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, rally ahead of last year’s disputed election, which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power for a second term. (AP Photo)

“Provisions in the Islamic civil and penal codes, particularly sections dealing with family and property law, discriminate against women,” according to a State Department report on international human rights, released last month.

Under Iranian law, the testimony of a woman in court is worth half as much as that of a man, it said. “Women sometimes received disproportionate punishment for crimes such as adultery, including death sentences.”

The report also noted that for a rape victim to secure a conviction against her assailant, she requires the testimony of four men (or three men and two women), and that anyone found to have brought false allegations of rape faces 80 lashes.

“The penal code provides that if a woman appears in public without an appropriate hijab, she can be sentenced to lashings and fined.”

Three board members of the National Iranian American Council, Dokhi Fassihian, Hadi Ghaemi, and S.B. Anderlini, wrote Wednesday that the Iranian government “has taken every conceivable step to deter women’s progress and institute a regressive regime against gender equality.”

Iran getting a seat on the CSW, they said, was “indicative of the ways in which women’s rights are continually sold down the river in exchange for political favors and horse trading on other issues at the U.N.”

‘Delegates represent government interests’

An Iranian reformist news site, Rooz, quoted a women’s rights campaigner, Parvin Ardalan, as saying that activists could use Iran’s CSW membership as an opportunity to criticize its gender policies on the international stage.

But another rights advocate, Asieh Amini, argued that the government would use the CSW as a forum “to defend its fundamentalist policies.”

“In recent years, the Iranian government has attempted to justify its policies with respect to women by sending representatives to international conferences who represent, not Iran’s civil society and women’s movement, but government’s interests,” Rooz quoted her as saying. “One justification often provided by them for dismissing gender equality is the value of local customs and religious traditions.”

When Iran defended its human rights record at the Human Rights Council last February, it pointedly included women in its delegation.

In introducing one of them, Prof. Mahboubeh Mobasheri, delegation leader Mohammed Larijani declared, “This lady is the chancellor of a huge university in Tehran.”

He did not mention that Alzahra University is a female-only institution, or that Mobasheri’s predecessor – Zahra Rahnavard, wife of green movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi – had been forced out of the post by hardliners in 2006.

Mobasheri, wearing a black hijab, then told the Council that “the significant advancement of Iranian women’s status in society” since the 1979 Islamic revolution was “undeniable.”

“Benefiting from the religious teachings and observing the principles of moderation and strengthening the institution of family, the Islamic Republic of Iran has provided a favorable situation, without any legal impediments for women’s promotion,” she said.

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