Norway refuses to say if it voted to elect Iran to UN’s top women’s rights commission

After a UN Watch report exposed the secret-ballot election of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), members of the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) broke into debate over Norway’s vote. In a tense exchange, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide repeatedly refused to state whether Norway voted in favor of Iran’s candidacy to the UN’s top women’s rights commission.

Following is the video (in Norwegian) and the transcript (translated into English) between Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and Storting Representative Christian Tybring-Gjedde on the floor of Norway’s Storting on Wednesday, April 28. 

Christian Tybring-Gjedde: Voting Iran into the UN Commission on the Protection of Women’s Rights is like giving a firefighter the job of fire chief, said UN Watch Director Hillel Neuer. And he said it was absurd and morally reprehensible.

April 22 was exactly what the UN Economic and Social Council did, and 4 out of 15 western countries thought it was a good idea – and maybe also Norway. Who knows – at least we did not vote in this Chamber.

Iran is a religious dictatorship where women are stoned to death for infidelity, where women are imprisoned for not wearing the hijab, where punitive methods such as whipping, stoning, hanging, amputation of hands and feet, torture and rape are part of the penal system, where child marriage can be entered into from the age of 13, where forced marriage is accepted and girls are married off by guardians, and where men do not shake hands with women – all in line with sharia, Islamic law.

On the World Economic Forum’s index on gender equality, Iran ranks 139th out of 142. Norway has several times before refused to state what we have voted for when choosing countries for key positions in the UN. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has referred to UN procedures. Well, if we voted for this, our credibility is not worth much. Then we have lost our moral compass.

The Foreign Minister has previously claimed that Norway will give Iran a clear expression of what we think about the country’s treatment of women, and she has added: and what we expect from them. It’s the story of the mouse that roared.

Norway’s voting is not about procedures. It is a signal – a signal to oppressed women everywhere else in the world.

Previously, the Foreign Minister did not want to say what Norway voted on April 22, so let me rephrase the question: Does the Foreign Minister think that Iran is suitable and has deserved to sit on the UN Commission on the Protection of Women’s Rights?

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide: As I answered Representative Tybring-Gjedde in the debate we had on Thursday last week, Norway does not state its vote – in line with the rules of procedure in the UN. It has been the practice under changing governments, and that is because the UN system is designed so that we do not state where to vote and what to vote for. It also means that we do not let people know what we are not voting for, although of course it can be tempting at times.

As I also said in the debate we had on Thursday, it is undoubtedly the case that Iran has significant challenges when it comes to human rights. This is something we have been pointing out for a long time. That is also the reason why we join, among other things. EU restrictive measures against Iranian officials. This is also the reason why addressing human rights is always a key issue, both multilaterally and bilaterally with Iran.

When I say that there is no doubt that Iran has major human rights challenges, it also means that we believe that Iran has a very long way to go before it can be said to fulfill the fundamental rights that women and everyone else have. It also means that we will hold Iran accountable in the position they have now been given. And as the representative is probably also familiar with, there were five countries running for these five seats.

For us, it will be important to continue the very clear line we have when it comes to Iran and human rights, and especially women’s rights. We have several times recently also addressed the situation of named women rights activists when they are imprisoned, and especially recently because the corona has also made significant challenges even greater. And this is something Norway, in line with a fixed and long-term line, will continue to do. 

Christian Tybring-Gjedde: I hear the Foreign Minister say that procedures are more important than morality. I do not understand how one can sit in the UN and mean it. Then the point of sitting in the UN is gone, I mean.

I’m going to go a little further, because I do not get any more answers. The process surrounding the possible sale of Bergen Engines to Russian interests has revealed weaknesses in the government’s ability to coordinate security policy. Also how we relate to countries outside our immediate areas is Norwegian security policy, because it can create mutual dependence, something the Foreign Minister also mentioned. Horse trafficking in connection with the campaign to get us elected to the Security Council is one such case, which the Minister of Foreign Affairs has seen exist. The government’s unwillingness to follow up the Storting’s decision to deny countries that do not themselves practice religious freedom, to finance religious freedom in Norway, is another example, ref. Saudi Arabia.

Can the Foreign Minister now inform the Storting about how a decision to vote in the UN is made? Is it the civil service? Is it the diplomatic corps that knows this? We do not know. Is that the Secretary of State? Is that the Prime Minister? Who is involved in knowing what we are actually doing in the UN?

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide: It is almost impossible to answer questions that put in so many different and incorrect premises. However, let me first just say that the question of regulations regarding the financing of e.g. religious houses, is under the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, where regulations are now being prepared, which the representative also dares to be familiar with.

It is not the case that we run horse shops when there is voting for e.g. The Security Council or the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is important for Norway to vote in a way that enables us to safeguard Norwegian interests. And it is – as I have also informed the Storting about both in statements about the Security Council’s work and in questions from the Storting representatives – that we in some contexts, it is a very common practice, enter into vote-exchange agreements with countries where we see that we can have a mutual interest, e.g. of getting Germany into the Security Council, as we typically did at the previous crossroads, and Germany wanted to get us into the Security Council. It is then based on the assessment of Norwegian interests.

President: Christian Tybring-Gjedde – for follow-up questions.

Christian Tybring-Gjedde: Vote-exchange is probably another word for horse trading, at least as I have learned what horse trading means.

The government has a duty to provide information to the Storting. The information must be true and sufficient, and with reference to Section 82 of the Constitution, it is stated that the duty to provide information stipulates that the Storting is entitled to be informed of the Ministry’s final decisions. The government has a duty to inform the Storting of what the government has decided on key issues that could potentially have consequences for the country’s leading elected representatives. If the government chooses not to do this, reference must be made to decisions made in the Storting. The Government may, when required, decide not to inform the Storting, but then it must justify this in decisions made in the Storting. Then the Security Act is relevant.

Does the Minister of Foreign Affairs believe that the Security Act is an obstacle to providing the Storting with the requested information? And most importantly: Will the Foreign Minister be willing to stand in the enlarged Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and provide information on what Norway voted in this matter?

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide: Again: There are many premises in this question that it is difficult both to refute in a short time and to that extent also to tell how the situation is around. But I have never claimed that the Security Act should be an obstacle to discussing voting in the UN. On the contrary, I have said that it is the UN procedural rules that mean that the countries, and this applies to all countries, do not say what voting they have, ie neither who they vote for nor who they do not vote for. It is an enshrined principle in the UN, and I believe it is a credibility and trust Norway must also continue to have.

I therefore believe that drawing the lines of the Constitution in this context will be very special. The Government obviously has a duty to provide information to the Storting and to provide truthful information. So do we. But I have also never experienced that any previous government has been exposed to the question of whether it is contrary to the Constitution.

The President: Christian Tybring-Gjedde – for follow-up questions.

Christian Tybring-Gjedde: Maybe it’s because there is a violation of the Constitution. We parliamentary representatives participate in international forums. I am i.a. Head of the NATO PA Delegation. In this context, there is also foreign policy on behalf of the Storting. It is absolutely crucial for me to know how the government relates to foreign policy also in the UN, in all possible contexts. And we have a requirement, as a nationally elected assembly, to know what the government thinks in foreign policy, and what it actually does.

The procedures in the UN are completely irrelevant to this National Assembly. I understand that it can be very pleasant for the government to refer to procedures, so that one can continue with horse trading when it comes to voting, as the Foreign Minister says. But there is actually something called morality as well, and it goes before procedures. So does the Foreign Minister think that procedures in the UN are more important than clearly showing where we stand morally?

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide: The government shows through foreign policy where we stand. We have an open and free debate on Norwegian foreign policy. Most recently two weeks ago, I was here and gave an account of Norwegian foreign policy for one hour. We had a debate last Thursday. Every representative is free to ask both written and oral questions, ask in the debates, ask interpellations. I also experience that there is interest in the Storting. I give two annual statements on EU and EEA issues. I also give one annual report on Norway’s work in the Security Council.

In other words, there is a lot of opportunity to discuss foreign policy and where Norway stands. I feel that there is a fairly good consensus on the long lines of Norwegian foreign and security policy. This has been the case through changing governments for many years. But it is also the case, of course, that the representative Tybring-Gjedde, who often means something else, is completely free to think so. But I therefore give a thorough account of Norwegian foreign policy very often in the Storting.

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