East Timor decisively defeated Iran today in an election to serve on the executive board of a new U.N. woman's agency, racking up a victory that highlighted the world's growing unease over Tehran's record on women's rights.
The election followed a behind the scenes campaign by the Obama administration and other Western governments to prevent Iran from undermining the credibility of the newly established U.S. backed agency with its presence on the board.
The new agency, called U.N. Women, is headed by the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. It was established earlier this year to consolidate the activities of four U.N. agencies that promote women's health, education and rights, and will operate on a $500 million budget. Today, the 54-member U.N. Economic and Social Council elected 41 members states to serve as the agency's board of directors. East Timor gained 36 votes and Iran 19.
Iran appeared assured of winning a seat on the new board after the U.N.'s Asia group presented a slate of ten candidates, including Iran, for the ten seats reserved for Asia on the 41 member board. But the U.S., the European Union, Canada and Australia, encouraged other Asian states, including the Philippines and East Timor, to throw their name in. The Philippines initially decided to compete for the post, but then abruptly withdrew its name.
East Timor's leader, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Jose Ramos Horta, also decided to join the race in recent weeks. Ramos Horta had recently criticized Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for suggesting to the U.N. General Assembly that the 9/11 attacks may have been orchestrated by U.S. authorities. "What President Ahmadinejad said in this forum in regard to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center was an obscenity," Ramos Horta said.
Tom Malinowski, the head of Human Rights Watch's Washington, D.C. office, praised the outcome, saying it "it's yet another example of the benefits of U.S. re-engagement at the U.N. and of what the Obama administration can achieve when it puts up a serious fight for human rights."
The board still includes several candidates, including Saudi Arabia, with poor records on women's rights. But U.S. officials said they were confident that Bachelet would prevail in pursuing a progressive women's agenda.
"Now I am not going to deny that there were several countries that are going to join the board of U.N. Women that have less than stellar records on women's rights, indeed human rights," Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador said after the vote. "U.N. Women is a vitally important institution. We have every expectation that its establishment under the leadership of Michelle Bachelet will lead to a strengthening of capacity within the UN system to support women, enhance their rights, defend their security around their world."
Rice said the U.S. welcomed East Timor's victory over Iran, saying they "lost and they lost handily. We've made no secret of our concern that Iran joining the board U.N. women would have been an inauspicious start to that board."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.