March 8, 2011
by Elizabeth Samson
This 100th anniversary of International Women's Day is, indeed, marked by substantial progress towards gender equality and female empowerment. The day was first celebrated on 19 March 1911 by Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland. A few years later, after an anti-government strike starting on 8 March 1917 by Russian women had helped bring about the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, leading eventually to Russian women winning the vote, caused the date of the day to be reset. Finally, in 1975, the United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day.
Yet, in spite of the advancement of women over the past century, many are still left behind and the UN has not done enough to secure a positive future for women. In this past year, events involving two significant UN entities – the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) – demonstrate, through their own tensions and contradictions, that there is still a long way to go before women's rights are universally realised.
The 55th session of the CSW – a 45-member functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) – ended last Friday, 4 March, and was unfortunately marked by Iran taking the seat on the commission to which it was appointed in April 2010; it will serve a four-year term. Though ostensibly "dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women", Iran's participation on the CSW discredits the commission and leaves serious doubt about whether this UN body can implement a serious, comprehensive and effective women's rights agenda.
Iran's women's movement is one of the oldest in the world, and although Iran has universal women's suffrage, women may not be judges, and the court testimony of a woman is regarded as equal only to half that of a man. An Iranian woman has neither the right to divorce her husband, nor the right to custody of her own children. Femicide – the killing of women – is endemic in Iran, with a man legally permitted to execute his wife if she is unfaithful. Iran ranks second only to China – a country where sex-selective abortions and female infanticide are practised – when it comes to total annual state executions of its citizens.
Iran's cruel and repressive policies should not have yielded the reward of being elected to the CSW, the principal global policy-making body that promotes the advancement of gender equality. In recognition of that incongruity, when UN Women – an umbrella organisation for four existing UN agencies – was established on 10 November 2010, a strong campaign against Iran's candidacy led to its exclusion from membership in the new agency. Nonetheless, UN Women's composition does include countries with abysmal records on women's rights, such as China, which is also a member of the CSW, and Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive.
The recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and protests in other countries, have inspired hope that change is on the horizon. But it is the suspension of Libya from the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) due to the Gaddafi regime's brutal onslaughts against opposition protesters that has created optimism that the UN will now move to censure other human rights violators. The UN Charter (Chapter II) allows the security council to recommend to the general assembly that a member state be "suspended from the exercise of the rights and privileges of [UN] membership" (Article 5), or expelled for having "persistently violated" the principles of the Charter (Article 6).
Although the suspension of Libya is not the same as an expulsion, we can hope that this move will set a precedent for UN action to bar human rights abusers such as Iran from the CSW. Libya is not the only precedent: in October 1974, there was a motion to expel South Africa from the UN because of its apartheid policies. Ultimately, South Africa was suspended, though "informally", and prohibited from working in the general assembly's 29th session – a suspension that only ended in June 1994 when South Africa held its first democratic elections. It is, therefore, not far-fetched to believe that member states might censure Iran through suspension.
Diplomatic action is often governed less by reason than by realpolitik. Thus the international community suspended Libya from the HRC because it would have been an embarrassment to allow Libya to remain a member of an organisation dedicated to promoting human rights, while the Libyan regime was very publicly and flagrantly committing atrocities against its own people. But if reason alone had ruled the initial decision-making, Libya would not have been elected to the HRC in the first place, and Iran and other women's rights abusers would not have been elected to the CSW or UN Women.
As we celebrate the accomplishments of women on IWD, let's acknowledge the plight of those who still suffer under brutal regimes and advocate for the rights of women and girls so they may reach their potential and realise their dreams of freedom. And if shame is what it takes to open the eyes of nations and encourage them to exclude notorious violators of human rights in general, and women's rights in particular, from their ranks at the UN, then perhaps shame might not be such a bad thing in this case. The UN's treatment of Libya should be applied to Iran and others like it, so that the community of nations can take pride in its commitment to women and humanity as International Women's Day enters its second century.
Elizabeth Samson was previously a Visiting Fellow at Hudson Institute until 2012.
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