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Iran's Election to UN Women's Body Draws Outrage From Rights Activists, US Silence

FILE - Women wearing protective masks amid the coronavirus pandemic walk in Iran's capital, Tehran, April 5, 2021.

Iran’s election to the U.N.’s top women’s empowerment body this week despite having a poor record has drawn outrage from rights activists who criticized the Islamic republic’s treatment of women. The result of the secret ballot also has been met with silence from the U.S.

In Tuesday’s vote, 43 of the 54 nations in the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elected Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women for a four-year term beginning next year. The commission is the U.N.’s principal intergovernmental body dedicated to “the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

Iran received the smallest number of votes of the five nations elected to the body. Of the other four elected nations, China and Japan were already commission members while Lebanon and Pakistan will be new additions. Iran currently is not a member of the commission.

Iran’s poor record on women’s rights was under fire at the world body as recently as last month.

In his annual address to the U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, noted “some positive steps” for Iranian women and girls in education and in citizenship rights. But he also said, “egregious gender-based discrimination persists in law, practice and societal attitudes, disempowering women and girls from participating and contributing in society.”

Austria-based Iranian rights activist Sholeh Zamini denounced Iran’s election to the commission as “shameful.” In a VOA Persian interview Thursday, she said Iran will be the only country in the 45-member commission to have not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. “Not only has Iran not done this, but it is acting quite systematically to violate women’s rights,” she said.

Other Iranian women’s rights activists expressed similar sentiments on social media.

Hillel Neuer, the executive director of the Geneva-based group UN Watch, said in an online statement that while ECOSOC typically rubber-stamps regional groups’ nominations for the Commission on the Status of Women, the U.S. exercised its authority as an ECOSOC member to call for a vote.

“I commend the Biden administration for forcing the vote, but they should also speak out to condemn the obscene election of [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime to a women’s rights body,” Neuer said.

Biden administration officials had not commented on Iran’s election to the commission by late Friday.

Since only 11 of ECOSOC’s 54 members did not vote for Iran in Tuesday’s secret ballot, Neuer noted that at least four of the council’s 15 European Union (EU) and Western Group democracies voted in favor of Iran.

The State Department did not respond to a VOA Persian request for comment on how the U.S. voted and what it thinks of votes by its allies.

In a Friday tweet, Neuer expressed disappointment in the U.S. “going silent” on the issue. “Those who believe in the founding values of the United Nations cannot be silent when they are subverted,” he wrote.

In the Biden administration’s first report on Iran’s human rights record published last month, the State Department highlighted multiple issues with women’s rights including a “lack of meaningful investigation of and accountability for violence against women” and “significant legal, religious, and cultural barriers to political participation” for women.

After decades of U.S.-Iranian hostility, the Biden administration also began indirect talks with Iran through European mediators in Vienna earlier this month. Both nations have called it an effort to bring each other back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Under the deal, Iran agreed to restrict nuclear activities that could be weaponized in return for sanctions relief from world powers. The U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA and began unilaterally tightening sanctions on Iran in 2018 under former President Donald Trump, prompting Tehran to retaliate the following year by openly exceeding the deal’s nuclear limits.

“I hope that the U.S. & EU states negotiating with the Iranian regime over its nuclear weapons program did not make a Faustian bargain to betray women in Iran who are subjugated, discriminated against in law and practice and criminalized if they sing, dance or show their hair,” Neuer said in another tweet.

Tehran denies accusations that it seeks to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian energy program.

Atlantic Council analyst Barbara Slavin, who has supported the Biden administration’s bid to revive the JCPOA, told VOA Persian that she sees Iran as an inappropriate choice for the Commission on the Status of Women given its discriminatory practices toward women.

“My understanding of how the U.N. system works is that geographic groups come up with a nominee and it is difficult for other members to force a change,” Slavin wrote. “That said, we have also seen countries like Saudi Arabia elected to various U.N. human rights bodies. So, Iran is hardly the first and will likely not be the last repressive state named to such organizations.”

VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report, which originated in VOA’s Persian Service.