Saudi Arabia’s Election to the Committee on the Status of Women

Landon Wilcock

September, 2017

United Nations

United Nations


In a surprising outcome upon a secret ballot election held this past April, Saudi Arabia was elected to the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). 

Saudi Arabia is a nation well known for its vast gender inequality, and restriction of women’s rights and freedoms. Their intrusive restrictions include women being ineligible to attain driver’s licenses, and unable to attend doctor appointments without a male guardian present.

Surprisingly, of the 54 nations who make up the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) who voted in the election, 47 approved Saudi Arabia joining the CSW. Saudi Arabia will now be joining the 45 nations that comprise the CSW body for a four-year term from 2018 to 2022.

ECOSOC is one of the six principle sectors of the United Nations. It is responsible for coordinating the economic and social related work of 15 United Nations agencies, including the CSW.  

The CSW aims to advance women’s rights, addresses barriers, increase gender equality, and policy implementation.

The present focal point of the CSW are reducing violence against women, the empowerment of women and girls, and improving political participation of women.

Through allowing Saudi Arabia to sit on the CSW commission, the United Nations has given power to and legitimized Saudi Arabia’s deprivation of women’s rights. However, this is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been the centre of controversy.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia was reelected onto the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), despite not competing for the seat.

Seats for the UNHRC are granted based on regions; thus, Saudi Arabia was competing uncontested against the grouping. Their category had five states vying for five spots; Iraq, Japan, South Korea, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia. The UNHRC election processes can lead to some regions being heavily contested, such as Europe, whereas other categories have low demand, such as the one Saudi Arabia is grouped.

Due to the United Nations means of seat distribution, Saudi Arabia claimed their controversial seat on the CSW without competing against nations with better women’s rights records. Such as Russia, whom lost in the Eastern European category.

However, this April’s CSW election was contested for the Asian category. States whom typically advocate for progressive women’s rights assisted in the election of Saudi Arabia - a nation that has taken deliberate vast measures to adverse women’s rights.

Despite, Saudi Arabia receiving the least number of votes of all winning states, the most controversial aspect may be that five European Union states voted to approve Saudi Arabia’s position on the council. One of these states was Belgium, a nation who historically made considerable strides to improve gender equality.

Belgium’s reasons support for Saudi Arabia is unknown. However, it is documented that Belgians delegate made it known to Saudi Arabian they would support their bid. Top Belgium officials blamed miscommunication for their vote of confidence in Saudi Arabia’s position on CSW. Belgium Prime Minister, Charle’s Michel, stated regret for voting in favor of the state. Although, the mystery remains why delegates agreed to support Saudi Arabia; there was clearly a premeditated strategy.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap report ranked Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries for gender equality, with only Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen ranking below.

Beyond Saudi Arabia’s inability and refusal to improve women’s rights, the greater issue may be Saudi Arabia is now in a position to -  positively or negatively - influence women’s rights globally.

It appears that two streams of logic may be involved in the states election to the council.

Firstly, some nations may hold the rational by Saudi Arabia election may work to advance their policies, via education of the benefits of gender equality and soft power influence.

However, evidence of this strategy working is relatively non-existent. In 2010, a similar situation aroused. Iran was elected to the CSW. Despite Iran’s position on the council, in 2016 Iran remained one of the lowest rankings states for gender equality; ranking 139 out of 144 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index with a score of .587.

Iran’s election to the committee is a strong case to argue against the notion to vote in favour of a state with poor gender equality to sit on the CSW.

A second outcome may have been to leave the seat void until another state stepped up with an increased women’s rights record. This situation would have allowed soft power to thrive. ECOSOC and CSW would have sent a strong message to Saudi Arabia, and other nations with lacking women’s rights, that state must obtain a commitment to women’s rights in order to gain a position on an influential committee – CSW.

By essentially rewarding nations with abhorrent women’s rights, the United Nations sent a strong message of legitimizing Saudi Arabia’s inimical record with a position on a committee to demonstrate leadership and power.

The CSW is not a place to educate a nation whom refuses to progress their women’s rights - which is necessary for this nation. But rather a committee that aims to demonstrate leadership of gender equality, influence positive women’s right policy changes, and establish a new and higher standard for women’s rights.

Moreover, the election of Saudi Arabia to the CSW reveals a flaw in the United Nations committee election process. The use of secret ballots enables limited accountability and transparency. The secret ballot permitted countries to factor political, economic, and social factors into their decision – meaning states may vote for countries with adverse women’s rights due to external facets. Belgium’s vote in favour for Saudi Arabia’s is a prime example of this senior at play, as the region is a major oil supplier and regional power. The lack of transparency brought Belgium’s vote to light only upon investigative reporting.

The CSW was established to take strives towards a gender equitable world, however, by granting seats to states with repugnant women’s rights records it delegitimizes the council influence, power, and primary objective of improving women’s rights.