UPDATED: Several members of the Norwegian Parliament are among those angered by a secret UN vote last week that gave Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t even allowed to drive cars, a seat on a UN commission meant to promote women’s rights. They want to know how Norway voted on the issue, but Foreign Minister Børge Brende has so far refused to answer.
“Norway won’t make public how we vote in secret UN elections,” Brende said on the floor of Parliament Wednesday. He refused to respond to MP Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left party (SV), who wanted to know whether Norway contributed to giving Saudi Arabia a seat on the commission.
SV wasn’t the only political party with MPs keen to challenge Brende on the vote. The Christian Democrats and the Liberals, which both support the Conservatives-led government coalition in which Brende serves, wanted answers, too, during the Parliament’s weekly “question hour” on Wednesday. Even the Progress Party, which shares government power with the Conservatives, was upset. “I can’t understand this at all,” said Progress MP Christian Tybring-Gjedde, over Brende’s refusal to reveal Norway’s vote or position on the issue.
“I think it’s important to get some openness around how Norway behaves, also internationally,” the Liberals’ leader, Trine Skei Grande, told state broadcaster NRK. “This is such a sensational decision that there’s a good reason to make it public.” Newspaper Aftenposten also editorialized on Thursday that Norway’s role in the UN vote “must be clarified.” It called Saudi Arabia’s presence on the commission “comical” and noted that it can make it difficult for commission members to reach consensus on important women’s rights issues, not least regarding reproductive rights.
‘Worst in the world’ for women
Grande of the Liberal Party, meanwhile, was referring to how a country that won’t let women drive or marry, travel, work, study or even open a bank account without a man’s permission could possibly be allowed to help form equality policies. The World Economic Forum has ranked Saudi Arabia as being among the worst country in the world for women, in 141st place on a list of 144 countries ranked in terms of global equality. Women in Saudi Arabia must fully cover themselves and can also be whipped if they violate the Saudi kingdom’s strict moral codes that are enforced by police.
Aftenposten reported that when Saudi Arabia recently presented a new women’s commission in the province of al-Qassim, it contained only 13 men and not a single woman.
The UN nonetheless decided last week, by a vote of 54 to 47 of the countries on its economic and social council, that Saudi Arabia should get a spot on its women’s commission. The voting was secret, reportedly at the request of the US, which is a strong ally of the oil-rich Islamic nation that ironically enough nurtured many of the terrorists that attacked the US in 2001, including Osama bin Laden. Aftenposten noted in its editorial on Thursday that in the area of women’s reproductive rights, Saudi Arabia and the US have similar stands following the controversial election of US President Donald J Trump. He has cut US funding for reproductive health care that includes abortions and made it clear he wants to punish women who opt for an abortion. The US and Saudi Arabia together can thus move the UN commission towards curtailing women’s instead of strengthening them, Aftenposten noted, exactly the opposite of what the UN intended when it set up the commission in 1946.
Brende also noted that Saudi Arabia, which opened an embassy in Norway a few years ago, is an ally and that he wouldn’t violate the UN’s decision to keep the vote secret. Norway did take part in the vote, confirmed Foreign Ministry spokesman Frode O Andersen to NRK, but said its secrecy was “permanent practice that is followed by most countries and has been followed by Norway throughout various governments.”
Saudis have ‘nothing to contribute’ regarding women’s rights
Both Andersen and another ministry spokesman, Ingrid Kvamme Ekker, stressed that Norway “in general is one of the strongest promoters of women’s rights at the UN and on the commission,” and that Norway has been “clear that women’s position and status in Saudi Arabia is unacceptable.” Andersen said Brende had also taken up the thorny issue of the lack of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia during a recent visit, and Brende himself declared on the floor of Parliament Wednesday that the situation for women in both Saudi Arabia and Iran is “completely unacceptable.”
That didn’t satisfy the critics. “This is a regime that’s probably the worst in the world for women,” Grande maintained. Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats, also reacted strongly to the vote and hopes Norway did not vote in favour of Saudi Arabia’s seat on the commission. “I think that would be very unfortunate,” Hareide said. “You can’t take in Saudi Arabia in the hopes they’ll get better in terms of equality and women’s policies. That would be wrong.”
The issue brought rare agreement between SV on the far left of Norwegian politics and the Progress Party on the far right. “No one can say that Saudi Arabia has anything to contribute when it comes to promoting equality,” said Tybring-Gjedde of Progress. “I think the ministry should be open about this, and I register that SV thinks the same.”
Aftenposten reported that Saudi Arabia couldn’t have been voted down, however, because there were as many open seats on the commission as there were candidates.
Editor’s note: Hillel Neuer of the Geneva-based organization UN Watch, which monitors UN activity, claimed on social media (but not to us) that he was misquoted in Aftenposten’s and NRK’s coverage of the UN vote. We have thus removed references to Neuer in this story, to avoid any discrepancies.