Saudi Arabia to Chair UN Women’s Rights Forum

Saudi Arabia to Chair UN Women’s Rights Forum
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Oona Carteron

Women’s Rights Researcher, 

Global Human Rights Defence.

Despite its abysmal treatment of women and its unfathomable track record of human rights and particularly women’s rights abuse,  Saudi Arabia was appointed Chair of the UN forum for Women’s rights and gender equality. The irony of placing a country with no respect for international humanitarian law whatsoever, women’s rights or human rights for that matter at the head of the United Nations’ most important forum for the promotion of gender equality, has led to the rise of many voices calling for the UN to denounce the decision. After Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN Commission on Women's Rights in 2017, there was a massive wave of outrage amongst human rights activists and organisations. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch had commented, “it's like appointing an arsonist as the city's fire brigade chief”.[1] The United Nations is sending a message that everything can be bought with petro-dollars, even political gain, and evidently, human rights. 

Saudi Arabia’s reformed Personal Status Law, adopted in March 2022, is highly discriminatory towards women in all aspects of life including mariage, inheritance, divorce and child custody. [2] It entrenches systematic persecutions of women by granting immunity to perpetrators of “honour crimes”, failing to criminalise marital rape and enshrining male guardianship over women, to only mention a few.[3] However, in yet another calculated diplomatic move, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman portrayed the reform as a significant step towards advancing women’s rights, as a codified Personal Status Law limits arbitrary and inconsistent judicial interpretations of Islamic Law on matters pertaining to morality or family affairs.[4] Nevertheless the reform further entrenches discrimination, patriarchal gender roles, forced submission for women and greatly heightens the risks for women to be exposed to abuse, violence and exploitation.[5] 

Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that women are not the only target of the Saudi government. The regime’s crackdown on freedom of expression, human rights activists, the LGBTQIA+ community and journalists results in active and systematic persecution, from arbitrary imprisonment, travel bans, to physical violence and death, with over 196 executions recorded by Amnesty International in 2022. [6]

This decision is not only outrageous but a clear sign that the fight for women’s rights is far from being won and that gender equality is still a dream of the future. When faced with such  decisions, showing a blatant lack of respect for women’s rights around the world, the audacity of the vote seems to be at best inappropriate if not particularly dangerous. It is of the utmost importance that the United Nations remains impartial, independant and uncompromising, for what is at stake is nothing less than women’s lives. 

Sources and further readings:

[1] Les Crises. (2017, Avril 28). L’Arabie Saoudite élue à la Commission des droits des femmes de l’ONU. Les Crises, Consulted on March 27, 2024 

[2]  Charbonneau L. (2024, March 9).  Reject Saudi bid to chair UN Women’s Rights Forum. Human Rights Watch, Consulted on March 27, 2024 

[3] Human Rights Watch. (2024, March 8). Saudi Arabia: Law Enshrines Male Guardianship. Human Rights Watch, Consulted on March 27, 2024 

[4] Amnesty International. (2024, March 22). Saudi Arabia to be appointed chair of UN’s gender equality forum amid ongoing assault on women’s rights. Amnesty International, Consulted on March 27, 2024 

[5] Amnesty International. (2024, March 8). Saudi Arabia: Personal Status Law codifies discrimination against women. Amnesty International, Consulted on March 27, 2024 

[6] Amnesty International. (2023, September 8). Saudi Arabia: 100 people executed as authorities continue relentless ‘killing spree’. Amnesty International, Consulted on March 27, 2024