UN Women’s recent announcement that Saudi Arabia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will be on its Executive Board has stirred much controversy and some confusion as to the responsibilities of countries on the Executive Board. The two countries have miserable reputations for the protection of women’s rights. Rape as a weapon of war is widespread in the DRC, and Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam severely restricts women’s economic and social rights. Iran, a country that preserves practices such as death by stoning as punishment for adultery, also bid to join the Executive Board, but was unsuccessful.
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi called Iran and Saudi Arabia’s bids “a joke”, claiming that the board “will not get anywhere” with these two countries as members. Blogger Saudiwoman rejected this claim, saying that by including Saudi Arabia, UN Women may have more influence over the country’s human rights policies, and “engage Saudis and educate women here on their rights”.
There seems to be some confusion in this debate as to what UN Women will actually do and what responsibilities fall to its executive board. UN Women has been created to streamline the several previously-existing women’s rights agencies into one body – these agencies were UNIFEM, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Division for the Advancement of Women and the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. It will become operational in January 2011.
UN Women is mainly a monitoring and technical support body. It aims to “support Member States to advance gender equality, in line with national priorities and international norms and policies.” This means that not just those states that are on the Executive Board will be held accountable for the standard of their women’s rights protection. All UN Member States are to keep in line with gender equality resolutions made by the General Assembly, which are politically binding, and Security Council, which are legally binding. UN Women is there to monitor their progress in implementing UN commitments. Saudi Arabia will be no more thoroughly monitored due to its position on the Board than any other country would be. What’s more, the Member States get to decide when and what kind of help UN Women provide within their states. So UN Women will only be helping out in Saudi Arabia and DRC if they are invited to do so. Such is the nature of sovereignty.
So what is the purpose of the Executive Board? There are 41 members on this Board, drawing from 5 major regions of the world: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Six of the states are taken from major contributing countries, a category which includes the USA, UK and Saudi Arabia. One function of the Board is to establish which countries have the greatest need for support. UNIFEM works in 80 countries of the world, according to requests for help and the organization’s judgment of which countries need their technical support most urgently. This pattern will be continued by UN Women in its decisions on how to allocate its financial and technical resources.
As far as innovation goes, the board will be able to influence policy making by recommending new initiatives to the Council and Assembly and approve country programs and projects within its own field.
All this means that the countries on the board must agree to what policies the agency will advocate for. The diversity of State practices in women’s rights represented on the board could make progress slow and halt forward-thinking policies. However, each region of the world must be represented – without fair representation there is the danger of Western states being accused of cultural imperialism.
UN Women can be a useful body for the creation of new international frameworks for women’s rights. However, cooperation with these standards still largely falls down to the individual State’s willingness to change their laws and practices. If Saudi Arabia does not invite UN Women to intervene in its country, there is little UN Women can do apart from exert political and diplomatic pressure. Saudi Arabia’s presence on the board may lead to the expression of some less progressive views on women’s rights, but it may also encourage a change of mindset for some Saudi policy-makers. Next year, UN Women will begin to operate, and we must hope that the Executive Board members undertake their offices in good faith, and with a good understanding that their position requires them to make furthering the freedom of women their main goal.