November 10, 2010
To many, it would seem like a bizarre joke to suggest that Iran should put its hand up for a position on the proposed new United Nations entity, UN Women to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. And yet not only is this a reality, Iran has been put-forward on an uncontested list of 10 nations to join the council by the Asian bloc, meaning its appointment today is all but certain. UN Women was announced by the General Assembly in July and combines the four previous UN bodies dealing with women, one of which – the Commission on the Status of Women – already had Iran as a member.
Iran has been the subject of much scrutiny in the international community in recent months because of the case of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly committing adultery. In a bid to quell international outrage, Iran forced her to confess to her husband’s murder, allegedly under torture, and then sentenced her to hanging instead. Having had her sentence commuted further, her final fate has yet to be determined. Her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaie, who was forced to flee the country, said this about Iran:
[Iran] is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, with deaths by stoning, executions of minors aged under 18 and amputations…In Iran, unfortunately, one could say women are in a real situation of slavery.”
Iranian religious police, at the behest of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cronies, commonly harass women for “inappropriate dress”, fining or imprisoning those who appear in public without adhering to a strict religious dress code.
Furthermore, Iran suppresses any intellectual opposition to these draconian practises. For example, Khamenei, recently banned the teaching of 12 social sciences in Iranian universities, including women’s studies and human rights. As explained by Abolfazl Hassani, a senior Iranian education official, they are “not in harmony with religious fundamentals and they are based on Western schools of thought”. Iran even does whatever it can to prevent any reporting on these human rights abuses – according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran arrests more journalists than any other country in the world.
It is fair to say that Iran is ruled by a theocratic regime with a view on women’s rights that would be far more at home in the 7th century than the 21st. If, as expected, Iran is voted on to this new UN body, it will be a damning reflection on those who are responsible for enforcing international law and human rights.
Saudi Arabia is also expected to be voted onto UN Women. This is a country where women are forbidden from driving, voting or holding property in their own name and where they are segregated from men in restaurants and other places of public social gathering, are legally compelled to cover their entire bodies and are scarcely allowed in public without a male escort.
There is mounting evidence that the UN model, designed to prevent conflict in a post-WWII world, is now outdated and becoming increasingly irrelevant, particularly with regards to human rights. The current structure of the UN is such that while it is essentially a democratic body, countries that actually support democratic values and human rights are vastly outnumbered by the world’s dictators and tyrants. There is a solid voting bloc in the UN made-up of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the African Union and other notorious human rights abusers, such as China and Venezuela, who cast a protective umbrella over each other’s actions.
The UN Human Rights Council, established in 2006 to replace the failed Human Rights Commission, has shown that despite the slight change in nomenclature, it has not rid itself of the flaws that brought down its predecessor. The original UNHRC was criticised for rejecting any degree of scrutiny on member states who committed, or at least permitted, such acts as state-sanctioned honour killings, mutilations and oppression or religious and ethnic minorities as well as women and homosexuals, while concentrating disproportionately on the alleged “crimes” of Western nations, particularly Israel.
The present-day UNHRC counts amongst its members such beacons of human rights as Libya, Uganda, China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Cuba. Just this week, the United States was forced to fend-off a barrage of criticism from the UNHRC, led by Cuba and including some of the states mentioned above. It speaks volumes that the very countries that should most be scrutinised by the council are not only given absolute impunity, but sit on the very council that should be criticising them. It is small wonder, therefore, that a country like Sudan was permitted to commit all-out genocide over a period of 6 years without so much as a peep from either of the UNHRC’s incarnations, or that China has not faced any criticism from the UNHRC over its recent imprisoning of a Nobel peace laureate and clamping down on his supporters.
In a world rife with honour killings, forced marriages, infanticide of female babies, sex slavery and more, it seems more than appropriate that the international community forms a body to address gender equality, as indeed it is essential that the international community addresses issues of human rights. That said, by having as members some of the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses, these bodies seem to do the very opposite of their intent, defending the worst violators whilst imposing excessive scrutiny on those regimes that endeavour to be fair to all their citizens. It is an unfortunate reality that until the UN is restructured so as not to be a democracy run by tyrants, gender disparity and rights violations will continue unabated.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz is a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.