For International Women’s Day, I attended an invitation-only event at United Nations headquarters in New York City. If I am completely honest, I was hesitant to go for a number of reasons.
So, why was I conflicted? Well, It was one of those strange things where I knew the answer but also sort of didn’t.
Before I add context to my dilemma, it is important to underscore the great work, achievements and ambitious undertakings that characterize the UN as we know it today. With 193 sovereign nations represented — including thousands of delegates and representatives who must carefully navigate ever-changing geopolitical landscapes and conflicting economic interests; and hundreds of millions of lives that are directly and/or indirectly impacted by its policies and programs — the UN, in my view, embodies the greatest diplomatic endeavor and achievement of modern times. While it is certainly not a perfect institution it has far surpassed its predecessor, the League of Nations, given the very complicated and volatile dynamics that govern our world today.
That being said, it is not without fault. Like any sizable, multinational organization made up of strong-minded personalities — in this case: strong-minded ambassadors representing super-power nations and influential member states — the well oiled machine is not without its fair share of challenges. As a result, not all nations are treated fairly, and not all nations are made to answer for their misdeeds. A less than stellar voting system gives way to an environment where one nation—Israel—is consistently singled out while those that regularly violate UN mandates (and its founding charter) are largely overlooked and, sometimes, even rewarded with positions of power and influence. This is particularly true in matters of human rights — especially safeguarding the lives and rights of women and girls worldwide.
No institution is perfect. However, with an organization of this caliber, great importance and unlimited global reach, there is a reasonable expectation for certain standards to be upheld. Given these failures, I typically err on the side of skepticism when presented with opportunities to attend their events — even as a mere observer.
It is worth emphasizing once more: the UN is neither devoid of merit nor moral equity. It remains an institution that does vital work and is a beacon of hope for those of us who value and champion diplomacy at every opportunity. However, we cannot and should not disregard the reality: the United Nations is not always in step with the values and ideals in which it was founded upon.
For example: Saudi Arabia — a nation where women cannot work, travel, undergo life-saving medical procedures or leave their home without consent from a male guardian — was elected to serve on the Commission on the Status of Women (a women’s rights platform). Saudi women are not allowed to drive or operate a vehicle (but will soon gain the right to do so in June 2018), nor are they granted custody of children over seven years old in instances of divorce. Women who are victims of rape and sexual assault must live with their anguish and remain silent, otherwise they are imprisoned and sentenced to lashes or death by beheading — depending on whether she was married at the time of her assault. Under Saudi law, a woman’s testimony is only worth half that of a man, yet this is the state elected to oversee UN policies to safeguard the rights of women.
I believe, wholeheartedly, in the power of diplomacy. I also believe it is the most vital element to affect positive change going forward. All nations, even those we disagree with, deserve a seat at the table. Everyone’s voices should be heard and taken into consideration. However, when nations show little to no regard for ideals they are tasked to promote and protect, while others are unreasonably singled out, it is difficult for me to not question the overall credibility and moral standing of any institution that allow such offenses and prejudices to continue unchecked.
For these reasons, I was reluctant to attend. Though, my apprehension still wasn’t clear. Perhaps I was too jaded by the overall diplomatic process. Perhaps I was despondent about the prospect that my country — a tiny sliver of land where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Middle East — could one day, finally, get a fair chance to be heard instead of the usual slander and vilification. Perhaps I was too….annoyed?…that the same event meant to celebrate and empower women had ties to a UN body overseen by states like Saudi Arabia and Iran who notoriously impede the rights of women everyday.
Whatever the case, I overlooked it all and focused squarely on the good. Ultimately I chose to attend because I know real change and real diplomacy starts with the mere act of being present.