(RFE/RL) -- Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a legally binding document, it does define terms like "fundamental freedoms" and "human rights" as stipulated in the United Nations Charter, which is binding on all UN member states.
The declaration also has served as the basis for two binding UN pacts: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
For that reason, the 1948 declaration has grown to be regarded as an integral part of international law -- as well as a document with a mission to protect the basic rights of all people.
Nevertheless, the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not contain any specific mention of protecting the rights of those whose sexual orientation is toward their own sex.
On December 18, diplomats from 66 countries signed a memorandum declaring that it is high time for the UN General Assembly to openly debate the issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The drive to collect signatures was announced by seven countries -- France, Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, Gabon, the Netherlands, and Norway.
"Today, 66 states are emerging from silence to claim the protection of fundamental freedom and the question of sexual orientation and gender identity are connected," said Rama Yade, France's secretary of state for international affairs and human rights.
"At the beginning of this 21st century, how can we accept that people could be arrested, could be tortured, could be executed because of their sexual orientation?" she asked.
Yade said those who fail to protect the rights of homosexuals, or even to speak out against hate crimes targeting homosexuals, are accomplices to such crimes.
"It is my conviction we should never stop," she said. "Each violation, each attack on fundamental rights must be fought. We should never accommodate injustice. We should repair it. Each violation must be exposed and denounced. It's silence that is an accomplice of crime and infamy."
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said the new declaration is not enough, on its own, to improve the situation for homosexuals. But he said it is a historic step toward recognizing their basic human rights.
"Even in countries that do not criminalize homosexual acts, gays are often in a very difficult position, accepted for who they are by neither their families nor their government, nor society as a whole," Verhagen said.
"They face major obstacles to enjoying their economic, social, and cultural rights. Discrimination, exclusion, and even aggression are never far away," he added. "Indeed, the realities of life are harsh for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people."
The UN-AIDS program has supported the declaration, saying it would help people at risk with AIDS or infected with the HIV virus to receive medical assistance.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, also signaled her support, saying there is a considerable body of legal decisions affirming that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is contrary to international human rights law.
On its own, the European Union has endorsed an initiative by France, which calls for the universal decriminalization of homosexuality and a campaign to raise awareness of violence and discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals.
Homosexuality is forbidden and penalized in 77 countries. The death penalty is applied in seven countries against those convicted of homosexuality: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sudan, and Yemen.
That compares to 47 countries where homosexuality is legal, and 57 other countries that have passed legislation to protect same-sex orientation.
U.S. Backs Off
There is no official minimum number of signatures needed on the new declaration to force debate by the UN General Assembly. But backing from about 100 of the 192 members of the United Nations is considered a significant threshold.
Major powers that have not backed the declaration so far include Russia, China, and the United States.
After the December 18 meeting, Verhagen said he was disappointed that the United States was among the countries that did not sign the declaration.
"The United States, as such, is a country with a strong human rights record," Verhagen said. "And I note that the United States is also a traditional defender of human rights worldwide. So that is why I'm disappointed that their reading of this text made it impossible for them to sign the declaration."
U.S. officials were said to have expressed concern privately to some of the states backing the initiative that some parts of it could be problematic in that they would commit the federal government on issues that fall under state jurisdiction.
A U.S. spokeswoman for the UN mission, Carolyn Vadino, stressed that the United States does condemn any violations of human rights related to sexual orientation.
Verhagen said he hopes that the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will be more inclined to recognize that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should also apply to homosexuals.
"What we say is that Universal Declaration Of Human Rights means that they also have to be applied to homosexual, bisexual, and transgender people," Verhagen said.
"We are not saying that people should behave like certain people behave, we don't say we should apply a certain lifestyle, what we say is you don't use this as an excuse to discriminate against them, to violate their human rights or to penalize them," he added. "So I hope that also the U.S. will be the next of the countries that will support this statement."
Even as Verhagen was making those remarks, Obama signaled at a news conference in Chicago the same day that he supports the spirit of the declaration.
"I think that it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans," Obama said. "It is something that I have been consistent on and something that I intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency."