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Enda Kenny backtracks on claims over Saudi Arabia and women's rights

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been forced to backtrack on claims that he personally raised women's rights issues with the Saudi Arabian government.

Amid a row over how Ireland voted on the kingdom's successful bid to join an influential United Nations body, Mr Kenny claimed on Thursday that he had brought up concerns for women while on a trade mission to the country in 2014.

He has since said that he raised the question of human rights but not specifically issues facing women.

The controversy emerged after the Irish government refused to say if it voted for Saudi Arabia to get its seat on the UN's Commission on the Status of Women.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan is facing deep criticism over last month's secret ballot and insists that it would be " irresponsible and damaging" to confirm a vote and break with UN precedent.

Mr Kenny became embroiled in the row while on a trip to Canada where he defended his government's position and claimed he had personally raised women's rights issues with the Saudis in 2014 only to later backtrack and admit he had raised human rights.

"What I raised with the Saudi authorities, as part of a trade and investment delegation, was the question of human rights, and women's rights issues as a specific matter have been followed through by Minister Flanagan at Foreign Affairs Council meetings," the Taoiseach said.

His spokesman later said the Irish government's concern for women's rights is "without question and has been demonstrated on many occasions".

"Ireland is currently a member of the United Nation's Commission on the Status of Women," the spokesman said.

"Our strong reputation in promoting gender equality is reflected in the fact that in March, Ireland assumed the chair of the Commission. This provides an opportunity for Ireland to take a leading role in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women generally."

The UN's Commission on the Status of Women was set up in 1946 and is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

It says it is instrumental in promoting women's rights and documenting the reality of women's lives throughout the world.

Human Rights Watch states there have been "marginal improvements" on women's rights in Saudi Arabia in recent years, mainly in employment and higher education, but men continue to control female relatives' lives.

Women in Saudi Arabia could not vote until two years ago.

The kingdom was one of 13 countries to be given a role on the Commission on the Status of Women for the next four years, and five of the country's 47 votes are said to have come from European countries.

A similar controversy erupted in Belgium, where the country's prime minister Charles Michel subsequently revealed the government would have voted differently if given another chance.

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