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Democracies Abetted Iran’s Election to a U.N. Women’s Rights Post

(mizoula/Getty Images)

The election of Iran, China, and other countries with delinquent human-rights records to the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women last month kicked off an international whodunnit.

According to the NGO U.N. Watch, at least five Western democracies eligible to vote on commission membership would have needed to support Tehran’s bid. Meanwhile, the U.S. government called the development “troubling” but declined to issue a sharper condemnation.

Human-rights advocates blame this ambiguous stance on the Biden administration’s efforts to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as ongoing talks in Vienna get closer to producing an agreement to jumpstart the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “The Biden administration has joined Canada and Europe in a most disciplined reticence to criticize the Islamic Republic’s mounting repression, in the hope that the lack of scrutiny will be seen by the regime as another concession to curb its nuclear program,” said Marian Memarsadeghi, a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

The problems with Tehran’s participation in any international entity involving women’s equality should be self-evident. At a Monday morning U.N. Watch press conference that focused on Iran’s election to the commission, panelists, including Memarsadeghi and Shaparak Shajarizadeh, an activist who was jailed twice and assaulted for speaking out against Iran’s mandatory hijab law, pointed to Iran’s manifest hostility to women, including the fact that the age of marriage for girls is 13 and that domestic violence and marital rape are not criminally punishable. (Read more on this from Isaac Schorr.)

All of which makes it astounding that Western democracies voted for Iran. But it’s not unprecedented; although Iran wasn’t on the commission when it was elected, it had previously served terms on the body. China was already on the body, and it won an additional term with votes from nine of the 15 Western governments eligible to vote, despite its own abominable record on women’s rights.

Usually, there’s no formal vote for commission membership, as backroom negotiations leads yield a number of candidates that precisely matches the number of open seats for the commission, but the Biden administration said that it specifically called for a vote in order to put countries on the spot.

Still, ballots were cast in secret, so there’s no easy way to identify the Western countries that sided with Tehran. With only two exceptions, the Western democracies on the commission have remained silent, but as public pressure grew, Canada’s ambassador to the U.N. confirmed that his country had not voted for Iran.

The U.S. government has also strongly implied that it opposed the result. In the April 23 statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the U.N. elaborated on Washington’s stance:

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield believes the unopposed candidacies of countries that engage in torture, abuse, and violations of human rights and due process was a troubling feature of this election.  That’s why the United States called for the vote on the Commission on the Status of Women, specifically to allow countries to register their opposition.  The United States supports candidates in the UN system that seek to contribute positively to its work and mission and reinforce the foundational values of the UN system, including human rights. We continue to call on regional groups to put forward candidates with strong human rights records for these UN bodies.

Since then, the State Department has invoked almost identical language to answer other reporters’ questions, including during a briefing by State Department spokesperson Ned Price on April 29. He delivered the pro forma response, but in follow up questioning declined to explicitly condemn Iran’s election to the commission: “In this case, I think that Iran would qualify for much of what I just said: countries that have very troubling records, deeply disturbing records.”

“That’s a change in position,” said Hillel Neuer, the director of U.N. Watch, this morning, pointing out that the administration’s current stance falls far short of then-U.N. ambassador Samantha Power’s expression of “outrage” when Iran won a seat in 2014.

With talks on reviving the Iran deal in full swing, the administration has apparently decided that taking a softer stance on women’s rights will help strengthen its negotiating position. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that several European countries at the U.N. see it more appropriate to elevate brutal authoritarian regimes to key positions than to draw a clear line opposing their behavior.

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