U.N. divided over gay rights declaration

UNITED NATIONS Thu Dec 18, 2008 6:09pm EST

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly split over the issue of gay rights on Thursday after a European-drafted statement calling for decriminalization of homosexuality prompted an Arab-backed one opposing it.

Diplomats said a joint statement initiated by France and the Netherlands gathered 66 signatures in the 192-nation assembly after it was read out by Argentina at a plenary session. A rival statement, read out by Syria, gathered some 60.

The two statements remained open for further signatures, the diplomats said. No resolution was drafted on the issue and there was no voting, they added.

The division in the General Assembly reflected conflicting laws in the world at large. According to sponsors of the Franco-Dutch text, homosexuality is illegal in 77 countries, seven of which punish it by death.

The European Union-backed document, noting that the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was marked this month, said those rights applied equally to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It urged states "to take all the necessary measures, in particular legislative or administrative, to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular executions, arrests or detention."

But the opposing document said the statement "delves into matters which fall essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states" and could lead to "the social normalization, and possibly the legitimization, of many deplorable acts including pedophilia."

"We note with concern the attempts to create 'new rights' or 'new standards,' by misinterpreting the Universal Declaration and international treaties to include such notions that were never articulated nor agreed by the general membership," it added.

This, it said, could "seriously jeopardize the entire international human rights framework."

Muslim countries have for years opposed international attempts to legalize homosexuality.

U.S. officials said the United States had not signed either document. They said the broad framing of the language in the statement supporting decriminalization created conflicts with U.S. law, but gave no further details.

But Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen told reporters it was a "very special day at the U.N."

"For the first time in history a large group of member states speaks out in the General Assembly against discrimination based on sexual orientation," he said. "With today's statement, this is no longer a taboo within the U.N."

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told reporters sponsors of the statement had "cornered" other members by springing the declaration on them.

(Editing by David Storey)

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