A UN spokesperson says, "The secretary-general has no authority or involvement" in the election.
New York CNN  — 

The principal UN commission charged with promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women has picked 13 new members by secret vote. One selection is raising eyebrows: Saudi Arabia.

“Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a human rights group that acts as a UN watchdog.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap ranks Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries.

All Saudi Arabian women have legal male guardians. Those guardians have the power to make critical decisions on their behalf – including the ability to travel abroad, to marry, to work and to access health care.

Women are unable to drive in Saudi Arabia despite recent efforts to change the ban.

“It is absurd that Saudi Arabia is to sit on the UN Commission on the Status of Women as a state member,” said Rothna Begum, a Middle East women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“How can Saudi Arabia seek to promote women’s rights globally, when at home they continue to severely discriminate against women, treating them as permanent legal minors?”

Saudi Arabia has made small advancements in freedom for women.

Licenses for female-only gyms were approved in February but only for the purpose of motivating Saudi women to get fit; but licenses for competitive sports like soccer, volleyball or tennis remain unavailable.

The country sent its first female athletes to the Summer Olympics in 2012.

KSA 2030, the country’s ambitious vision for the future, aims to “increase women’s participation in the workforce” to 30%.

The Saudi Arabian Embassy to the United States referred CNN’s inquiries back to the Saudi Arabia Mission to the United Nations. Multiple requests for comment were left with Saudi Arabia’s Mission to the United Nations. CNN also reached out for comment from officials sources within the KSA but have yet to receive a response.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said, “This is an election by member states and one in which the secretary-general has no authority or involvement.”

The United Kingdom’s Mission to the United Nations also declined to comment on its vote and the Saudi’s election to the commission.

The United States’ Mission to the United Nations did not respond to repeated inquires but a State Department official told CNN’s Laura Koran, “As is common practice, the United States does not disclose its candidate preference in secret ballot elections either before or afterwards. The United States continues to work with the CSW and other UN organizations (such as UN Women) to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

It’s not the first time a country with a repressive human rights record toward women has been elected to the commission.

Iran was elected in 2010, a seat it still holds.

CNN’s Becky Anderson and Laura Koran contributed to this report.