UN divided over gay rights

The UN General Assembly is divided over a European statement calling for the global decriminalisation of homosexuality.

In the first gay rights statement of its kind, delivered during a session on Thursday, there was support from nearly a third of the 192 nation group. Most opposition came from Arab and African countries, some of which punish homosexuality with execution.

However, supporters defined the day as a historical breakthrough for international equal rights, as 66 countries declared support for the move. The controversial international issue has been rarely discussed at the UN.

U.N officials estimate between five and ten percent of the world's population is homosexual, but more than eighty countries consider homosexuality a criminal offence. In Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh it's punished by death, so millions stay quiet.

“How can we tolerate the fact that people are stoned, hanged, decapitated, tortured only because of their sexual orientation,” said Rama Yade, the Secretary of State for International Affairs and Human Rights of France.

Advocates deny the declaration as radical, saying the aim is to fight the spirit of intolerance and begin open dialogue about the problem.

“It is not meant to be a source of division, but simply to make possible debates we have on so many other difficult issues here at the UN,” noted the Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister, Maxime Verhagen.

The campaign is in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which does not specifically reference hate crimes against the gay community.

Co-sponsored by France and the Netherlands, the declaration was signed by all the European Union members as well as by Japan, Australia, Mexico and three-dozen other countries.

However, almost as many countries opposed the declaration, including members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. In a joint statement, critics called the move an unwarranted attempt to give special prominence to gays and lesbians.

“We are seriously concerned at the attempt to introduce to the UN some notions that have no legal foundation in any international human rights instrument,” said Abdullah Hallak, UN Representative for Syria.

The Vatican, meanwhile, reportedly criticises the document for giving rise to uncertainty in the law.

The U.S. in this case aligned itself with its adversaries in refusing to sign the declaration. A spokesperson reportedly said some text raised legal questions for further review. In the land of liberty hate crimes against gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexuals are up 24 per cent. Gays are not allowed to serve openly in the military, as the fight for same-sex marriage wages weekly.

Gay Americans like Kim Fountain, a gay rights campaigner, say the declaration is bitter sweet.

“In this country even though it is seen as a very liberal and very open one from other parts of the world, but we understand that our government often does not support us”.

The Russian Federation did not sign the declaration either, saying this narrow specific theme should be discussed within the existing universal human rights document.