Friday, December 19, 2008

Gay rights declaration a first for UN

"RENEWING THE AMERICAN DREAM"


Robert Chesal*


In a first the UN General Assembly has denounced homophobia, this despite strong opposition by many Islamic countries and the Vatican. Sixty six countries supported a Franco-Dutch declaration that called for anti-gay laws around the world to be scrapped. The declaration says that "sexual orientation or identity should never be cause for any legal sanction such as execution, arrest or detention".

Boris Dittrich, director of Human Rights Watch's section for gay rights, said the move was a remarkable one and he stressed that many African countries had joined in too.


"It is extremely important because all of these countries united behind a declaration calling on all other countries to stop discriminating against gays, lesbians and transgender individuals. It is the first time that this has been on the agenda of the General Assembly. It's a historic moment."


Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, who had come to New York for the occasion, applauded this "very special day for the UN". He added that the UN has neglected gay rights for too long.

The declaration implicitly criticises the more than 80 countries that have repressive laws on homosexuality. In seven countries homosexual acts are a capital offence.

The United States did not support the declaration against homophobic legislation, which does not come as a surprise, given the policies of the Bush Administration over the past eight years. It's not yet clear how Washington will vote on a gay rights UN resolution under Obama. But there is one indication: Barack Obama has chosen a vocal opponent of gay marriage to read the sermon during his inauguration on 20 January.

Father Rick Warren was a driving force behind the November referendum in California which terminated the right to a gay wedding. Warren drew a comparison between same sex marriage and paedophilia, incest and polygamy.

Gay rights activists in the US are complaining that they feel cheated after they expressed support for Obama during the campaign. They are trying to convince Obama to appoint a different religious leader for his inaugural sermon.

Resistance from Rome
The document is not binding, but it has caused anger in religiously conservative countries. Resistance to the declaration was led by the Vatican, with the support of 56 countries. Archbishop Migliore says the Vatican sees no good in the declaration because it would create "new categories which have to be protected from discrimination", and because it would lead to discrimination against the traditional heterosexual marriage. "States that do not want to recognise gay marriages will feel put under pressure," says Migliore.

Conservative alliance
The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), the world's biggest association of Muslim states, does not support the Vatican. Yet many OIC members oppose the declaration. Mr Dittrich thinks that most opposition will come from conservative Islamic countries.

"Countries such as Egypt, Uganda and Saudi Arabia are strongly opposed to the merest discussion of the fact that human rights violations should end, so that you cannot simply put gays in prison, or torture them or condemn them to death. They don't want to talk about that."

Advocates of gay rights, too, fear that the declaration will drive opponents into each other's arms. A similar thing happened in Cairo during the UN family conference of 1994, when a conservative alliance was formed between the Vatican, Islamic countries and a large number of Latin American countries, which wrecked a proposal to recognise the right to have an abortion.

Gay rights activists are hoping that the declaration is a first step towards a formal UN resolution. Resolutions require a majority in the General Assembly to be adopted. Mr Dittrich thinks it will probably be a number of years before that happens.

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