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Reject Saudi Bid to Chair UN Women’s Rights Forum

Riyadh’s Abysmal Women’s Rights Record Would Undermine Commission’s Work

People walk past a Vision 2030 banner showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Jeddah.  © 2019 AP Photo/Amr Nabil

United Nations member countries should abandon an arrangement to elect Saudi Arabia as chair of the UN’s top forum for women’s rights and gender equality. Delegations attending this year’s annual meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) should oppose the candidacy of Saudi Arabia, which has an egregious women’s rights record, and select a country committed to upholding women’s rights.

Saudi Arabia is the only candidate to chair the next yearlong CSW session, several diplomats told Human Rights Watch. The kingdom is expected to be unanimously confirmed in the post without a vote at the CSW on March 22, the diplomats said. The current chair is the Philippines.

Saudi Arabia systematically discriminates against women and persecutes women’s rights activists. Its own UN mission’s website concedes the government is no leader on women’s rights: “Saudi Arabia is tiptoeing on women progress, but the road is still long to go.”

In response to a query about Saudi Arabia’s qualifications to chair the CSW, the Saudi mission said: “Women empowerment is a collective aim of the international community … that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken major steps towards, and reforms are still going.” The statement flagged a World Bank press release on Saudi labor reforms benefitting women.

The Saudi leadership likes to present its recent law on “personal status” as “progressive.” But that law formally enshrines male guardianship over women and includes provisions that facilitate domestic violence and sexual abuse in marriage.

Diplomats from the UN’s Western regional group privately acknowledged the problems of the Saudi candidacy. But they’re not planning to oppose it or call for a recorded vote, as they don’t want to create a precedent. Typically, such posts are confirmed unanimously without a vote and rotate among the UN’s five regional groups. The Asia group, which includes Saudi Arabia, unanimously confirmed the Saudi candidacy.

In December 2022, Western governments responded to calls from Iranian activists and successfully pushed to expel Iran from CSW amid nationwide protests over the death of a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, in the custody of Iran’s “morality police.” For these countries to support the Saudi candidacy would broadcast a lack of serious commitment to women’s rights. They and other UN member countries should demand a vote and reject Saudi Arabia’s candidacy.


This article has been updated to reflect that the March 22 confirmation will take place at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

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