UN Commission on the Status of Women and Human Rights Council – Where Are You Headed?

by Celia Michonik
Public Affairs, UN and NGO Dept, World WIZO

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Every year, at this commission, representatives of 45 member states, international organizations, NGOs and civil society gather at the UN headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and the advancement of women worldwide.

During the past decade there has been a massive proliferation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all over the world. They have gained more prominence in comparison with governmental institutions. Although NGOs are often identified as powerless groups, they have become powerful and influential, especially because of their open agendas, non-political views and advocacy.

The Islamic Republic of Iran was elected in April, 2010 to the CSW by acclamation. The number of seats on the commission is based on the number of countries in a region, no matter how small their populations or how slight their respect for human rights. As is standard in UN election practice, when the number of interested candidates is the same as the number of available seats, the slate of candidates is automatically endorsed. For the four-year term beginning in 2011, the Asia Group put forward two candidates – Iran and Thailand – for two available vacancies, meaning that Iran was virtually guaranteed a seat.

It is well known that the UN is a highly politicized organization. Blocks of countries that have the same religious persuasion or political orientation get together and secure an automatic majority.

In this case we have been witnessing in the last few weeks countries like Iran and Libya who are chronic violators of essential freedoms being elected to bodies such as the CSW and the HRC.

Iran’s treatment of women has frequently drawn harsh criticism from human rights advocacy groups and Western governments. How incongruous then that a country which consistently fails to uphold women’s rights was elected as a member of a UN body charged with advancing women's rights and women's empowerment.

“Putting fundamentalist Iran in charge of a women’s rights commission is like putting a pyromaniac as chief of the fire department,” said Hillel Neuer, director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch. He added: “It’s an outrage, and completely unacceptable.”

Mrs Shirin Ebadi, the exiled Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Iran, an open advocate of women's rights in her country, mentioned that Iran has annulled laws passed during the regime of the Shah which supported women's rights. After the Iranian revolution the Ayatollahs gained power and wasted no time in doing what they know to do best: subdue women in the name of Islam.

Last week a senior Iranian Cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi declared that "Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes."

All logic not withstanding, Iran will be one of the players in the international arena of women's rights!

The second incredible case is that of Libya. With such an abysmal human rights record, Libya has won a seat on the HRC with 80% support! The HRC, which invariably targets Israel for human rights violations, has sadly shown once again how politicized it is when it comes to electing member countries to their council, countries with dictatorial regimes and countries which sponsor terrorism. In the long run the credibility of the HRC will decline, as happened with the previous HRC, which operated contrary to the hopes of its founders and had such a poor record in defending human rights that it had to be replaced by the present HRC… which turned out to be just as bad.

Libya is ranked not-free by Freedom House and was one of only 9 countries to receive the worst possible ranking for both political rights and civil liberties in 2009, qualifying as one of the world's most oppressive societies. Countries like Angola, Mauritania, Qatar and Malaysia share the same honorable list.

So, again, what can we expect from the HRC regarding future resolutions if in the past, without the participation of these countries, it adopted 32 resolutions specifically against Israel?

When referring to Israel's situation, I have mentioned in other articles that one of the goals that we have to aim for is that the huge population that keeps silent today will speak out and voice its opinions.

To conclude I would like to quote from an article written by Ms. Anne Bayefsky, Since when is Iran a Champion of Human Rights?, where she states the following:

"This is another example of just one more UN body created to do one thing and now doing the opposite for which American taxpayers foot 22% of the bill. And it will continue unless those with their hands on the spigot in Congress finally decide to turn off the tap".

In the past, women attending the CSW conference came with high hopes of gaining a platform to present their grievances and testimonies against those countries who are violators of women's rights. What chance do they have to do so today? What is the CSW going to do about these matters? Will countries like Iran take a resolute, strong standing against women being lapidated, lashed and murdered in honor killings? Don't bet on it!

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