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Why is Saudi Arabia heading top UN gender equality forum?

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Last week, Saudi Arabia was chosen to chair the United Nations’ leading gender equality forum, the Commission on the Status of Women. Even before the choice was finalized, rights organizations were issuing warnings.
Other countries “should oppose the candidacy of Saudi Arabia, which has an egregious women’s rights record,” the rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote a week beforehand.
After the decision was made on March 28, they were even more upset. “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,” Sherine Tadros, head of Amnesty International’s New York office, told the Guardian. “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.”
How did it happen?
The Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW, is made up of 45 UN member states. To ensure fair representation, CSW members are chosen 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.
Every year, the CSW holds an annual conference, attended by thousands, during which progress towards equal rights for women is assessed and a statement — known as an “outcome document” or “agreed conclusions” — is negotiated and published.
The CSW also has a leadership “bureau,” consisting of a member from each bloc. There is also a rotating chair, with each bloc taking a two-year turn in it.
Most recently, it has been Asia’s turn, with the Philippines appointed to head the CSW’s bureau. However, as they are only a CSW member until 2024, Manila planned to share the job, allowing another Asia-group country to take on the last year of leadership. That ended up being Saudi Arabia.
Why didn’t anybody object?
Usually members of the geographic group confirm the post unanimously, without any kind of vote.
It would have been possible for other members of the CSW, including the Netherlands, Portugal or Switzerland, to protest, Human Rights Watch pointed out as it lobbied them to oppose Saudi Arabia’s election. After all, in 2022, Western governments effectively expelled Iran from the CSW during the Iranian government crackdown on protests around the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, HRW argued.
“Diplomats from the UN’s Western regional group privately acknowledged the problems of the Saudi candidacy,” Louis Charbonneau, UN director at HRW, wrote shortly before the decision was made. “But they’re not planning to oppose it or call for a recorded vote, as they don’t want to create a precedent.”
How much power does the post bring?
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN, Abdulaziz bin Mohamed al-Wasel, will lead the CSW’s bureau into 2025, the first Saudi diplomat to do so since the CSW was created in 1946.
“The newly elected chair of CSW is expected to carry forward the work of predecessors in leading the Commission,” a UN Women spokesperson explained to DW. That includes advancing the goals of what is known as the Beijing Declaration, a resolution adopted by 189 countries in September 1995. It’s often described as a landmark in gender equality and it marks its 30th anniversary next year.
Critics of Saudi Arabia worry the country could negatively influence the UN’s position on gender equality at, for instance, next year’s CSW conference.
This year’s CSW conference had already “exposed the deep cultural and religious divisions between conservative and progressive nations over sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTQ protections,” reporters from specialist website Devex, which covers global development work, wrote last month.
This year, Saudi Arabia worked together with other countries — including Belarus, Nigeria, Turkey, Indonesia and Russia, as well as the Holy See — to promote conservative family values and ensure that language about, for example, LGBTQ rights or protections for sexual and gender-based violence, were diluted or left out of the CSW’s final statement, observers said.
“Giving a platform, giving access and giving a voice and power to people who are actually trying to regress gender justice and women’s rights issues, is a pitfall and it weakens the language [on] the key issues that we want to actually push the needle on,” Oxfam International’s head of gender rights and justice, Amina Hersi, 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 made on women’s rights.
“The Kingdom’s chairmanship … [is] in line with the qualitative achievements achieved by the Kingdom in this field, thanks to the special attention and care the Kingdom’s leadership pays to woman empowerment and rights,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency said in a statement. The country’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan also supports more female participation in the Saudi economy, it added.
There might be some potential for positive change, concedes Lina al-Hathloul, head of advocacy for the London-based organization, ALQST for Human Rights. “We do believe that international engagement and collaboration can lead to positive change, and that Saudi Arabia’s willingness to engage … could hold incentives,” she told DW.
But, she added, Saudi Arabia’s recent reforms mean very little when Saudi women can still be arrested or detained for not behaving or dressing in pre-prescribed manner, not obeying their male “guardians,” or for peacefully expressing political opinions.
“Concretely, what we have seen in recent in years is that — despite the narrative of reforms — the discourse around women’s rights remains a PR stunt,” al-Hathloul argued, one that is really only about the state’s economic goals and attracting more Western investors and tourists.

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