Removing Iran from UN Women’s Commission is important step - analysis

Iran and other authoritarian countries use commissions in the UN to get away with the abuses the commissions stand against.

 A woman holds up a sign during a protest against the Islamic regime of Iran and the death of Mahsa Amini, outside the Iranian embassy in Mexico City, Mexico, September 27, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/Paola Garcia)
A woman holds up a sign during a protest against the Islamic regime of Iran and the death of Mahsa Amini, outside the Iranian embassy in Mexico City, Mexico, September 27, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Paola Garcia)

Iran was ousted from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women on Wednesday evening in a 29-8 vote.

Sixteen countries abstained from the vote. The eight countries to vote against the decision were Bolivia, China, Kazakhstan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Russia and Zimbabwe.

The decision comes as Iranians continue to protest against the Islamic Republic throughout Iran for a 12th week. The protests were sparked after the killing of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini by Tehran “morality police” in September, but they have since expanded to cover more issues than just the hijab, with many protesters calling for regime change.

An Iranian representative to the UN said the Islamic Republic “categorically rejects” the decision, calling the claims of women’s rights abuses against Iran “baseless and fabricated.”

The decision to remove Iran was a symbolic but important victory for women’s rights at the international level. For many years, Iran and other authoritarian regimes were able to dominate and exploit the UN so that countries that abuse women’s rights were always in charge of UN bodies that deal with women’s rights, and countries that abuse human rights run the UN Human Rights Council. Now, there is an effort by Western democracies to finally end this charade.

 Iranian women attend Iran's World Cup Asian qualifier against Cambodia at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran October 10, 2019 (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) Iranian women attend Iran's World Cup Asian qualifier against Cambodia at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran October 10, 2019 (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

“Iranian women and activists called on us to do this – and today, we got it done,” wrote US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “These Iranian officials won’t be able to lie at the UN anymore. Thanks to the US for the resolution. Thanks to France & other democratic countries for removal of the Islamic Republic of Iran from the UN’s women’s body.”

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian author and women’s rights activist, tweeted: “This is just the beginning of an end.”

Iran has been murdering protesters for the last several months. The protests began when Iranian “morality police” killed Amini. That set off massive protests and an unprecedented uprising by Iranian women, especially young people, against the regime. The regime has made the suppression of women a pillar of its policy since the 1980s. Iran tries to control how women dress and often harasses women activists.

Authoritarian states using the UN to get away with things

What is interesting is that Iran’s regime also was able to get on the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN. This is an old practice of many dictatorships. They view the UN as a kind of “old boys club” where in order to dominate the UN, it’s important to make sure that all the most abusive and authoritarian regimes get on any committee that might examine their abuses. This is kind of like the bank robbers running the police or stock fraudsters running the commissions that deal with insider trading.

Because the UN is run by member states, and because there are many authoritarian member states, these states work together to promote each other’s interests. They also work within regions, such as the Middle East, Africa, South America or Asia, to make sure they elect their own members to these committees and commissions. That often involves horse-trading backroom deals, where one abusive regime will support another on different issues, so that both protect each other like a mafia.

That is why all the authoritarians voted to keep Iran – because they know Iran will protect them in other forums. Sometimes countries that are not particularly authoritarian will end up backing countries, such as Russia or Iran, because they also want something in return.

This bad process led to years of failure at the UN, where “human rights” and “women’s rights” became the opposite of what was intended. Another side of this story is that Israel was always singled out at the UN because bashing Israel was one thing most of these countries could agree on. They knew the more they talked about Israel, the less focus would be put on their own abuses.

Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan George Deek tweeted: “Iran was finally expelled from the UN Women Rights Commission – A big win to the women of Iran! May this be the end of the absurd legitimacy given to the Islamic Republic of Iran at the UN.”

UN Watch head Hillel Neuer also celebrated the victory.

“By a vote of 29 to 8, with 16 abstentions, the Islamic Republic of Iran was just expelled from the UN Women’s Rights Commission,” he said in a statement. “First time in United Nations history that any member state was removed from this body. Bravo to all who helped to make this happen.”

The vote against Iran follows another vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in April. But only 93 countries voted in favor of that suspension. Similar to the vote on Iran, many countries abstained, enabling the expulsion, but showing that many countries will still not stand up to Iran and Russia.

The votes on Iran and Russia appear to show an unprecedented recognition by the world’s democracies that something finally needs to be done to stop the authoritarians from exploiting the UN.

"The unmistakable message is this: the world is listening and taking action."

US Vice President Kamala Harris

US Vice President Kamala Harris wrote: “Today’s vote to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women is a victory for those protesting in Iran and all of those who stand with them. The unmistakable message is this: the world is listening and taking action. The women and girls of Iran will be heard.”

The fact that so many voices are celebrating the vote shows that the US and other Western democracies can again assume their global leadership role at international organizations. For many years, there was neglect of these issues, and the authoritarians quietly took over parts of the UN. The UN became a bit of a circus, especially when it came to the endless condemnations of Israel but no condemnations of any other countries’ abuses.

The US appeared to walk away from the UN during the Trump administration, even leaving UNESCO. This meant that the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions even slammed the US killing of Qassem Soleimani as a potential violation of international law.

The same rapporteur, however, did not seem to ever condemn Turkey or other authoritarian regimes for similar killings. Russia and Iran always seemed to get a free pass. Now, it seems that Iran, Russia and others might finally be getting a red card.

Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.