International controversy over UN declaration to stop anti-homosexuality legislation

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The United States — along with Russia, China, and many Arab countries — has stirred up international tensions by refusing to sign a United Nations declaration that condemns anti-gay laws and demands international decriminalization of homosexuality.

The historic declaration was crafted in conjunction with the anniversary of the U.N.'s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The new motion would extend the rights guaranteed in the UDHR to homosexual and transgender people, 60 years after the original declaration was made. It was backed by France and the Netherlands, and has been signed by sixty-six countries including Mexico, Israel, Australia and Japan.

The refusal of the U.S. to sign the non-binding declaration was prompted by its own legal questions. Officials said signing the declaration would cause a conflict between state and federal governments because of laws already in place. American military personnel are not allowed to be openly gay, and in some states landlords and employers are allowed to discriminate against a sexual orientation.

Carolyn Vadino, a spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the U.N., said the refusal to sign the declaration does not mean the U.S. believes human rights violations related to sexual orientation are acceptable.

Gay rights activists in the U.S. and around the world, however, expressed anger at the United States' decision, with one international group calling the stance "appalling." Former chief U.S. spokesman to the U.N. Richard Grenell said the United States' reasons for not signing the declaration were "ridiculous," adding that "the U.S. lack of support on this issue only dims our once bright beacon of hope and freedom for those who are persecuted and oppressed."

Representatives around the world have also spoken out against the U.S. decision, and in support of the updated declaration. Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Verhagen said the declaration was purely symbolic but that he would accept nothing less than for "human rights apply to all people in all places at all times." U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay discussed concerns over the countries that have not signed the document, comparing anti-gay laws to Apartheid laws and saying that stigma was to blame for unpunished violence and discrimination.

The declaration has met opposition from several Arab and African countries, which issued a joint statement condemning the attempt at "the social normalization and possibly the legalization of deplorable acts." One Syrian official said it would lead to more pedophilia. In many of these countries homosexuality is a criminal offense and, in seven nations, homosexuality carries a death sentence.

The Vatican has rejected the declaration as well, saying it appreciates the efforts made to end the criminal status of gays in many countries but that the declaration "gives rise to uncertainty in the law and challenges existing human rights norms." The vague definitions of 'gender identity' and 'sexual orientation', it said, would undermine existing and future laws.