In turnaround, U.S. signs U.N. gay rights document

WASHINGTON Wed Mar 18, 2009 2:21pm EDT

A police watches as demonstrators flee tear gas fired by police during an anti-homosexuality protest outside Dakar's main mosque February 15, 2008. The protest was sparked after the publication, in gossip magazine ''Icone'', of photos of a gay wedding in the mostly Muslim nation where homosexuality is illegal. REUTERS/Normand Blouin

A police watches as demonstrators flee tear gas fired by police during an anti-homosexuality protest outside Dakar's main mosque February 15, 2008. The protest was sparked after the publication, in gossip magazine ''Icone'', of photos of a gay wedding in the mostly Muslim nation where homosexuality is illegal.

Credit: Reuters/Normand Blouin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, in a reversal of Bush administration policy, has decided to sign on to a U.N. declaration that calls for the decriminalization of homosexuality, the State Department said on Wednesday.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the Obama administration, which took office eight weeks ago, would now join 66 other U.N. member states who supported a U.N. statement in December that condemned human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"The United States is an outspoken defender of human rights and critic of human rights abuses around the world," Wood told reporters.

"As such, we join with other supporters of this statement, and we will continue to remind countries of the importance of respecting the human rights of all people in all appropriate international fora."

Gay rights groups immediately welcomed the move.

"The administration's leadership on this issue will be a powerful rebuke of an earlier Bush administration position that sought to deny the universal application of human rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals," said Mark Bromley, who chairs the Council for Global Equality.

The U.N. General Assembly had been split over the issue of gay rights, with many Muslim countries refusing to sign on to the statement because of opposition to international attempts to legalize homosexuality.

A rival statement read out by Syria at the time gathered about 60 signatures from the 192-nation assembly.

The United States was the only western state not to sign on to the gay rights document. All European Union member states endorsed it, as did Canada, Australia and Japan.

'NO LEGAL OBLIGATIONS'

In a move that angered U.S. gay rights groups, the Bush administration argued that the broad framing of the language in the statement created conflict with U.S. laws.

The rationale was that favoring gay rights in a U.N. document might be interpreted as an attempt by the U.S. federal government to override individual states' rights on issues like gay marriage.

Pressed on this issue, Wood said a "careful" interagency review by the Obama administration found that signing on to the U.N. document "commits us to no legal obligations."

Division in the General Assembly over the U.N. declaration reflects conflicting laws worldwide on the issue.

According to the sponsors of the Franco-Dutch text of the document, homosexuality is illegal in 77 countries, seven of which punish it by death.

At a townhall meeting in Brussels earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was pressed on her views on gay rights.

"Human rights is and always will be one of the pillars of our foreign policy," she said. "In particular, persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians is something we take very seriously."

(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by John O'Callaghan)