The controversial election of Saudi Arabia to the UN Commission for Status of Women is a fascinating snapshot of the realities of international diplomacy and realpolitik.

The desert kingdom, famous for its oil as well as beheading and lashing, is not exactly known for its human rights standards and even less so for ‘women’s rights’, as we would know them. The country, run under conservative Islamic law, forbids women from holding bank accounts or driving, although they can fly planes if they are driven to the airport by a man !

Westerners are upset, and there is upset too that our Department of Foreign Affairs will not reveal how Ireland voted. It was a secret ballot and Iveagh House said that governments generally do not disclose such voting in order to facilitate “the management of sensitive international relations”

This is true, but it is also somewhat farcical. We should know how our diplomats are vote on our behalf. The country’s actual foreign reputation is involved here. But the Government rightly points out that if such voting was transparent, small countries like Ireland would then be pressured and bullied by larger countries.

But, more generally, to open up such secrecy would be to unveil the whole world of multilateral diplomacy which is all about deals, compromises and murky trade offs with often unsavoury regimes. That is the reality of the UN, and those are its rules, and for good or ill, and the UN has held most of the globe in peace since the Second World War.

Those who scoff at this claim should reflect on what the globe would look like without the UN – a totally lawless jungle of conflict and aggression dominated by the strongest, and with no regard for borders and standards.

Even the Swedes, with a more activist feminist State policy than ours, get this. They also wont reveal how they voted on the Saudi election. Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, said the decision ‘was settled at official not political level’. This is blame-shifting by a politician, but it is also true. Diplomats have to live with these compromises everyday.

Unlike the Belgian Prime Minister who claims that he would have voted differently if he knew about it. In fact, the Belgian diplomats made sure that the Saudis knew how they voted !

Why? To improve relations with the powerful oil-rich nation. And to get the Saudis to return the favour when it comes to a UN vote involving Sweden.

This is also probably why Ireland wont reveal its hand. We are facing into a much more significant UN election, for a Security Council seat, and we need every vote we can get. If we didn’t vote for the Saudis on this one, why tell them? (My guess is that we did support them).

This is diplomacy. It is about keeping the door open, building bridges and talking to your enemies. (Northern Ireland, hello?) But its also about trade offs and deals and the West, which supports democratic values and women’s rights, gains far more by cooperating with recalcitrant regimes and Governments.


After all, with Saudi Arabia on the women’s group, surely it can be held more accountable? Better to have them involved, than behind a desert screen where they do what they like – to women and anybody.

Bear in mind, there are 45 countries on this UN women’s committee and candidates like the Saudis are put forward by regional blocs.

This is the huge advantage of the UN : everyone is involved, on their own terms. But it is also the drawback : not everyone sees the world in progressive Western terms. And so lots of countries have been on UN Committees and groupings in ways that many of us find wrong and extraordinary. But who are we to say what it ideal?

The Saudis might ask why France is on a human rights committee when it bans the veil, or Switzerland which bans minarets on mosques? Ireland would be in the dock for its abortion policy. Yes, it’s imperfect and major hypocrisies abound, but the UN is all we have. It is a fudge of all the different political and ideological systems, and while we work to develop our Western values, we have to accept that others feel, and live, differently.