Boldness needed on women’s rights

Margaret Owen - Credit Widows For Peace

Saudi Arabia is not fit to chair UN Committee says Margaret Owen. Labour must oppose and be bolder on women’s rights here and globally, and declare its commitment to international laws and a rule-based world order

As we move closer to election day there is still time for the Labour party to be bolder than in its manifesto and do more to rally the women’s vote to secure them a landslide victory.  Sadly, there was no mention of gender issues, women’s rights, nor of its commitment to a rule-based world order among its five mission points on which its manifesto is based.  The party now has a chance here to regain the trust lost by the international community due to 14 years of Tory disdain for international human rights institutions and UN laws. It could again be counted among those UN member states who understand the urgency and importance of ensuring women’s full empowerment and that human rights include women’s rights.

Here is a chance for Keir Starmer and his team to demonstrate its respect for gender-related international laws, Conventions, Resolutions, and Platforms for Action.

To show where it stands, it must strongly oppose the election last March of Saudi Arabia as chair of the CSW (UN Commission on the Status of Women). This arrangement was and is an insult to all women everywhere, given the Kingdom’s abysmal women’s rights record. The UK declined to make any protest at this appalling choice, but here is a chance for Labour, the next government, to side with women here and across the world in demanding that this appointment is rejected.

The Kingdom is one of the worst countries in the world to live in as a woman, preceded only by Afghanistan and Iran. It is a country that condones honor killings, marital rape, and imposes the most inhumane forms of patriarchy, hostile to everything that feminists the world over – along with serious thinking men – have been fighting against. It argues that it is legitimate to deny its female citizens their human rights on the basis of cultural particularism, and that the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) articles conflict with the laws of personal status under Sharia law. When they say they are “gradually” making progress through their 2022 revised laws, the changes only gave women the right to drive, own a passport, and compete for the title of Miss World! But they still need their father’s permission to marry, are obliged to obey their husbands, on pain of being deprived of financial support if, for example, they refuse sexual relations with him.

 The status of women and girls worldwide could not be more urgent today as they are disproportionately harder hit by armed conflicts, displacement, forced migration, global hunger and the climate crisis, as well as by natural disasters, and the effects of the COVID pandemic.  Violence against women and girls is on the rise almost everywhere, including in the UK.

 The Tories have shown complete indifference to the CEDAW, ignoring its recommendations, and have threatened to withdraw altogether from this ground-breaking treaty the UK ratified in 1985, repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act and also break away from the ECHR. It declined to address, as requested by its committee, the impact of austerity cuts and Brexit on women’s lives; alongside its treatment of women asylum seekers, locking them up in unlawful IRCs (Immigration Removal Centres), and in hotels violates the Refugee Convention.

Furthermore, under the Tories, trade agreements and arms sales have been prioritized over human rights, so that there is a case for a judicial review of arms sales that might breach the ATT (Arms Trade Treaty), that prohibits arms sales to regimes that violate human rights, including women’s rights.  Will the new labour governments review the sales of arms to racist and misogynist regimes  – such as Saudi Arabia?

In this context the role of the CSW is ultra important in making progress on women’s empowerment, being the key UN forum promoting women’s rights. Since 1996, it has broadened its mandate to cover the monitoring and evaluation of progress made and problems encountered in the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA) agreed by member states in 1995. The appointment of Saudi Arabia to chair the 69th CSW has been widely condemned by human rights advocates across the world, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Women are outraged that not one of the forty five member states on the Commission’s steering committee broke the silence, while the UK refused to register a protest on the grounds that it was not a member of that group. 

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for ACTION (BPFA) and at its 69th session, to be held in New York in March 2024, evaluation of progress in its implementation, and the identification of gaps that must be filled is the key agenda.  But to have Saudi Arabia as head of the Commission, especially in this critical year, is totally unacceptable.  It is the only country in the world that has never signed the 1948 UDHR (Universal Declaration on Human Rights).

Woe betide any Saudi Arabian who dares protest the extreme patriarchy of the Kingdom.  Uncounted numbers of women and girls are arrested, tortured, imprisoned, disappeared, or murdered, for even slightly critical tweets under feminist hashtags. The percentage of females subjected to executions since 2021. Doctoral students Salma el Ghaheb and Noura al-Qahtani have both been sentenced to prison. Salma was given 34 years, and Noura, the mother of five, 45 years. Manahel A-Qtaibi, a sports coach and women’s rights activist was sentenced to 11 years for showing herself in a t-shirt, condemned as inappropriate clothing, on social media. Her sister Fouz fled to the UK in 1922 after receiving a summons, and a third sister remains in the country under an unofficial travel ban as a result of her activism. A draconian Anti-Cybercrime law includes the crime of “opposing the laws relating to women, such as the male guardianship system and the hijab law”. Just going to the shops without wearing an abaya can land a woman in prison.

The list of imprisoned and disappeared women is long. Some of those women fortunate enough to be able to hop on a plane and escape this fate have found asylum here in the UK.   

Women across the world are desperate to take action not only in the name of human rights trampled underfoot in Saudi Arabia but above all to safeguard the hard-won rights of women now threatened by the arrival of ultra-reactionary populist governments across the globe.

A petition has gone out to women’s NGOs to demand the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia from the CSW chair, and to threaten a boycott of the 69thCSW to be held in New York in March, 2025.

In the meantime, will Labour cease its silence and join us in condemning this appointment?

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.