UN chooses Saudi Arabia to champion women’s rights

By Harriet Agerholm for The Independent

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Saudi Arabia has been elected to the UN women’s rights commission, prompting outrage from human rights groups.

The kingdom is now one of 45 countries sitting on a panel “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women,” according to the UN.

The ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom has a state policy of gender segregation between men and women who are not related.

“Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian who makes all critical decisions on her behalf, controlling a woman’s life from her birth until death,” said Hillel Neuer, director of UN Watch. “Saudi Arabia also bans women from driving cars.

“Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief,” Mr Neuer said. “It’s absurd.”

At least five EU states voted in a secret ballot for the Saudis to serve a four-year term on the commission, according to Mr Neuer.

Helen Clark, former administrator of the UN Development Programme and prime minister of New Zealand, said in response to news of the election of the Saudis to the commission: “It’s important to support those in the country who are working for change for women. Things are changing, but slowly.”

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In March Saudi Arabia launched its first ever girls’ council meeting with publicity photos showing 13 men on stage and no women. Organisers said women were involved in the launch event, but that they were obliged to sit in a separate room.

The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap report ranked Saudi Arabia 134 out of 145 countries for gender equality. It is the only country in the world where women are prohibited from driving and are unable to obtain a driving licence.

Saudi Arabia, the country to which the UK exports most weapons, already sits on the UN Human Rights Council.