7 states abstained from voting Saudi Arabia into UN women’s rights commission

Seven countries abstained from voting to appoint Saudi Arabia to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), with the absence of a ‘no’ option, the Swedish Foreign Ministry has revealed.

The vote for membership in the CSW was held on April 19, leading to Saudi Arabia joining the 45-member body. Seven states abstained while another 47 voted ‘yes’ at the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Swedish Foreign Ministry told local media.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom noted, however, that the delegation could not vote against Saudi Arabia, as there was no such option. She also said that the procedure was held by secret ballot so the diplomats would not be under any pressure.

Countries within particular regions usually agree on who is going to be nominated, as there is the same number of candidates as there are available seats. However, this can lead to bringing in “unsuitable candidates,” according to Wallstrom.

READ MORE: Belgium urged diplomats to vote for Saudi Arabia in UN women’s rights commission – leaked emails

Five countries representing Asia were nominated for the five seats (available for the region) – Iraq, South Korea, Japan, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia – so “the outcome was pretty much decided,” the foreign ministry spokesperson said, as cited by Swedish Svenska Dagbladet daily. 

The minister refused to reveal how the Swedish delegation voted, saying that it “never comments” on these matters  as it would be harmful for Sweden’s role in the body. The minister will, however, inform the country’s parliament under terms of confidentiality.

READ MORE: Belgium ‘regrets’ helping elect Saudi Arabia to UN women's rights panel

However, one of the counties which took part in the vote has already revealed its position, with the Belgian prime minister having to apologize for supporting Saudi Arabia. It was also revealed that the delegation was instructed to vote in favor of Riyadh, and even make sure that the Saudis were aware of their support, despite the secret vote.

UN Watch, a human rights organization which monitors the performance of the United Nations, has strongly condemned Saudi Arabia’s appointment.

UN Watch chief Hillel Neuer criticized Sweden and the other countries which did not reveal their vote.

Sweden is known for promoting a “feminist foreign policy” which advocates gender equality. Despite the delegation’s unclear position on appointing Saudi Arabia and the absence of any information on their actual vote, the country says its delegation is “a strong and constructive voice for the rights of women and girls.” 

Many countries have defended the vote on Saudi Arabia’s membership in the CSW, despite the country’s infamous male guardianship system. Saudi women must have permission from men on a wide range of essential life issues. The ‘guardians’ decide whether a woman can receive an education or take a job, undergo particular medical manipulations, get married or divorced, or even travel, drive a car or open a bank account.

Norway has recently followed Sweden’s line and said that the UN’s internal procedures are “not public,” while the country’ opposition demanded disclosure. The UK and Ireland also refused to reveal their decisions on Saudi Arabia’s membership.