At Last Minute, East Timor Beats Out Iran for Chair of New UN Body

On Tuesday evening, East Timor, the tiny Asian country that declared its independence from Indonesian occupation in 2002, announced that it would run for a spot on the new UN Women's Board. The creation of the new board was announced in July: It blends four other existing -- but arguably ineffective -- UN institutions under a new bureaucracy, unified leadership, and a vastly increased budget. In July, women's rights groups applauded the new body, and the UN's renewed commitment to their cause.
But they weren't applauding last month. The UN's Asian group announced that it was nominating Iran, a nation that threatened to stone Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani to death for adultery earlier this month, for a spot on the board. And until yesterday, that spot was uncontested.

Today, the UN's Economic and Social Council voted on the members of the board. East Timor received 17 more votes than Iran, and took its spot. The Asian group originally nominated 10 nations for 10 slots, or a clean slate, for today's election. There are 41 countries total on the new board, which will be led by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

At a press conference after the ECOSOC vote, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, responded to concerns over the vote.

"We've made no secret of our concern that Iran joining the board UN women would have been an inauspicious start to that board," she said. "We welcome contested elections where there are competitors that exemplify the values and ideals of the institution for which they are seeking office. We therefore welcome Timor-Leste candidacy and that of many others on the Asian slate, and we think that it was a very good outcome today."

But Iran wasn't the only questionable country on the roster: Saudi Arabia, China, Libya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo also got seats. According to the UN Development Program's Gender Empowerment Measure, Saudi Arabia is rated worse on gender equality than Iran.

The bottom line: Even without Iran, the board's progress could still be impeded. Because the UN works through consensus, any of the members on a board can raise an objection to a particular action or idea. One country may not be able to stop an initiative entirely, but it may be able to push through major changes.

"If you get a key grouping of countries on a particular UN body, like the Human Rights Council, you can manipulate the agenda in your favor," says Brett Schaefer, a Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation, who describes vote trading as a popular tactic. "On the Human Rights Council, China, Cuba, Iran, and Sudan are able to work through proxies or directly through council membership to keep issues and criticism of themselves off the agenda."

Even Iran's willingness to apply for a spot was troubling.

"I'm surprised that Iran would want to go through with this," said Matt Duss, a national security researcher and Iran expert at the Center for American Progress, before the vote took place. "Given how sensitive they tend to be over criticism about human rights, why would they want to put themselves in the spotlight in this way?"

Membership on the Board, Duss says, would have heightened the tension on Iran's abuses and its ill treatment of women.

Still, Iran's goal could have been to "strangle [the Board] in its crib and make sure it has no power," Duss says. It may have also been attempting to shift the discourse, and deflect attention away from its own domestic abuses. Now, that torch will be passed to the board's other women's rights abusers, who will likely work together to sway the actions and operations of the body. According to Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, this is all typical UN behavior.

"What usually happens at the UN is the countries that are most guilty of charges in a certain area will gravitate to the UN organs that cover those areas so they can protect themselves, and deflect charges onto other countries," Phillips says, citing the Human Rights Council -- where Libya, Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba are members - as a major example. Last April, ECOSOC accepted Iran into a similarly hypocritical group, the Commission on the Status of Women.

Iran's near-election -- and Saudi Arabia's seat -- are illustrate a common criticism of the United Nations: Its two main functions are at odds with each other. It is supposed to provide a diplomatic forum for all nations to resolve issues, while championing principles of freedom, prosperity, international peace and security; the universal membership of the UN simultaneously advances diplomatic goals, and stifles them. Theoretically, it is an inspirational and monumentally powerful institution. In practice, it is highly politicized and stagnant.

"Nations [like Iran] argue that simply because they are UN members, they should have no less support for seeking membership on executive boards of a UN organization," Schaefer explains. "Well, that's false." Schaefer believes UN members should be evaluated based on their qualifications for board memberships. Right now, membership is based on geographic representation: Regional parties, like the Asian group, nominate the candidates.

The nominating and voting process also lacks competition -- the addition of East Timor on today's ballot is relatively rare. Regional groups are expected to produce a clean slate, or to recommend one country for each allotted spot. In this case, a member of ECOSOC can call a particular country -- like Iran -- to a vote. This vote is generally more symbolic than functional.

Today's vote represented an important victory for the nascent women's board, but it's likely still destined for more obstacles. "It's an example of how the best intentions often go astray at the United Nations," Phillips says. "Although the initial goal of setting up this committee is an important one, the end result is likely to be a train wreck."