UNITED NATIONS -- Iran has failed in a bid to secure a seat on the executive board of the new UN agency to improve women's rights.
The Islamic republic's nomination to the 41-member executive board of UN Women sparked fierce protests from human rights advocates and Western nations over Iran's rights record, particularly toward women.
Saudi Arabia, whose candidacy was also criticized, did secure a seat, however.
Before the vote, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi said either county on the board would constitute a "joke."
At the end of the day, it was the tiny nation of Timor-Leste that competed against Iran and won.
Hillel Neuer, the executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, said Western countries encouraged Timor-Leste to run for one of the 10 slots allocated to Asian countries on UN Women, a new board within the world body that was created when four UN agencies merged. The new group has a $500 million annual budget.
Had Timor-Leste decided not to run, Neuer said, Iran would have almost certainly won because there would have been 10 candidates for 10 slots.
"There was a worldwide outcry including from my organization -- UN Watch -- and I think Western democracies were mobilized and they did lobbying, and I think they persuaded enough of the 54 countries on [the UN Economic and Social Council] to vote against Iran," Neuer said.
'Expression Of Disapproval'
The United States, European Union, Australia, and Canada carried out an intensive diplomatic campaign to sway votes against Iran, diplomats said.
Norway's UN Ambassador Morten Wetland said his country backed East Timor because "it was an expression of disapproval of Iran's rights record."
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said of Iran's defeat: "They lost and they lost handily. We have made no secret of our concern that Iran joining the board of UN Women would have been an inauspicious start to that board."
Kazakhstan and Pakistan won seats, along with Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, and Estonia.
The election of Saudi Arabia was a disappointment for human rights organizations.
Neuer said that it was morally wrong to reward a country that lashes rape victims and subjugates women in every walk of life. He also expressed skepticism about the efficiency of the new board, whose formal title is "UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women."
"It's an umbrella group from many different women's agencies, so it has yet to be determined how well it will contribute on the ground," Neuer said. "And the fact that Saudi Arabia was elected and no one protested suggests that this is more about talk and less about action and more about politics and less about human rights."
But Philippe Bolopion, the UN advocacy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the new entity could be useful in advancing women's rights.
"We are pretty confident that UN Women will have a chance to make a difference in women's lives around the world," he said. "It's the first time when women's rights issues are being tackled by a full-fledged UN agency."
He called the head of the new agency, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, an "excellent" choice for the job.
UN Women is intended to help UN member states to implement rights standards, provide technical and financial support to countries that request it, and forge partnerships with civil society.
Within the UN, it will hold the world body accountable for its own commitments on gender equality.