Electing Saudi-Arabia to the UN Commission on the Status of Women is not a bad idea

You read about the references to The Onion, saw the outraged tweets and global disbelief as Saudi Arabia was elected into the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief. It’s absurd. Hillel Neuer, director of UN Watch is quoted by The Independent.

But as justified as critique of Saudi-Arabia is, it is important to look beyond the headlines and re-affirm a few core working principles of the UN system (some of which you can and should be critical about-but that’s another blog post, perhaps).

Saudi-Arabia is a normal member state of the UN
Saudi-Arabia is a regular member state of the UN. The UN system does not judge, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ members-there are just members. According to the international justice system Saudi-Arabia has not been found guilty of any crimes or wrongdoings-no matter how questionable its engagement in Yemen is. Diplomatically speaking, there is no difference between Sweden, Saudi-Arabia and Vanuatu. It is a core principle that keeps the UN working with more than 190 member states. So for the UN bureaucracy there is nothing special about Saudi-Arabia as one of the members of a UN commission that relies on regional representation.

Member states do things, not
‘the UN’
Secondly, it is important to point out that ‘the UN’ did not do anything or appoint anybody. Member states voted-and some voted for Saudi-Arabia. International politics and diplomacy are messy, favors and support are sometimes negotiated behind the scenes, but that is true for many countries or commissions. 
Plenty of states also openly support Saudi-Arabia, for example the UK and the US by supplying arms to them. That is bad-but it is also perfectly legal and the UN is not above the law or in the business of making moral judgements.

Can the work in the commission enhance accountability?
Third, it is worth having a look at the actual work of the commission and how Saudi-Arabia as a member might fit into it: 

Under its current methods of work, (...) at each session the Commission:
Holds a ministerial segment to reaffirm and strengthen political commitment to the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as well as their human rights and to ensure high-level engagement and the visibility of the deliberations of the Commission;
Engages in general discussion on the status of gender equality (…)
(…)
Addresses emerging issues, trends, focus areas and new approaches to questions affecting the situation of women, that require timely consideration;
Plays a catalytic role for gender mainstreaming in the United Nations system
(…)
Agrees on further actions for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women by adopting agreed conclusions and resolutions
As powerless as the commission may be in real terms, it does typical UN things-diplomacy, meetings, highlighting issues; why is it a bad thing to have Saudi-Arabia involved in these activities? How would excluding the country, including public shaming, help the commission and ultimately women in the country? The UN believes in incremental change and there are small signs that womens rights are improving.
In theory, working in such a commission involves issues of transparency and accountability, yes, soft politics, non-binding targets and the occasional lofty speech.
Including a country like Saudi-Arabia in these dynamics is still not a bad idea-the UN system usually does not do punishment and believes that communication and cooperation are important aspects of how global governance works-with all its flaws and limitations.

So just to be clear: There are many things you can and should be critical about when it comes to Saudi-Arabia – but electing them as a member to the Commission on the Status of Women is actually the right thing to do within the context of UN diplomacy.
Other members should put pressure on Saudi-Arabia-especially behind the scenes, but the UN is not the right scapegoat for messy international relations and hypocritical relationships that include money, oil and weapons…

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