GENEVA – The United Nations endorsed the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people for the first time Friday, passing a resolution hailed as historic by the U.S. and other backers and decried by some African and Muslim countries.
The declaration was cautiously worded, expressing “grave concern” about abuses because of sexual orientation and commissioning a global report on discrimination against gays.
But activists called it an important shift on an issue that has divided the global body for decades, and they credited the Obama administration’s push for gay rights at home and abroad.
“This represents a historic moment to highlight the human rights abuses and violations that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face around the world based solely on who they are and whom they love,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement.
Following tense negotiations, members of the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council narrowly voted in favor of the declaration put forward by South Africa, with 23 votes in favor and 19 against.
Backers included the U.S., the European Union, Brazil and other Latin American countries. Those against included Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Pakistan. China, Burkina Faso and Zambia abstained, Kyrgyzstan didn’t vote, and Libya was suspended from the rights body earlier.
The resolution expressed “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
More important, activists said, the resolution also established a formal U.N. process to document human rights abuses against gays, including discriminatory laws and acts of violence. According to Amnesty International, consensual same-sex relations are illegal in 76 countries, while harassment and discrimination are common in many more.
“Today’s resolution breaks the silence that has been maintained for far too long,” said John Fisher of the gay rights advocacy group ARC International.
The resolution calls for a panel discussion next spring with “constructive, informed and transparent dialogue on the issue of discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against” gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Boris Dittrich of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch said it was important for the U.S. and Western Europe to persuade South Africa to take the lead on the resolution so other non-Western countries would be less able to claim the West was imposing its values.
At the same time, he noted that the U.N. has no enforcement mechanism to back up the resolution. “It’s up to civil society to name and shame those governments that continue abuses,” Dittrich said.