Arab and African states have walked out of an historic UN Human Rights Council debate on gay rights, saying they refuse to legitimize same-sex relations.
The move came on March 7, as the 47-member, Geneva-based council held its first-ever session on sexual-orientation-based discrimination and violence.
In June 2011, the council narrowly approved a resolution expressing “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity." The measure was opposed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, among others.
Seventy-six of the UN's 192 member countries have laws on the books criminalizing homosexual behavior. At least five countries, including Iran, impose the death penalty as punishment for same-sex relations.
In a video message to council members on March 7, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said persecution of gays was "an attack on the universal values that the United Nations and I have sworn to defend and uphold."
He called the imprisonment, torture, and killing of persons based on their sexual orientation "a monumental tragedy for those affected and a stain on our collective conscience."
"It is also a violation of international law," he said. "You, as members of the Human Rights Council, must respond."
Islamic and most African countries long resisted discussion of sexual identity in the human rights body before a strong push by the United States and South Africa led to the June vote.
In Geneva, Saeed Sarwar of the Pakistani mission called into question the concept of sexual orientation itself.
"Licentious behavior promoted under the so-called concept of sexual orientation is against the fundamental teachings of various religions, including Islam," he said. "From this perspective, legitimizing homosexuality and other personal sexual behaviors in the name of sexual orientation is unacceptable."
Speaking on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Sarwar urged the council not take up the subject of gay rights again.
Later, most Arab and African nations walked out of the debate.
The session was held to consider a first-of-its-kind UN report released late last year by the UN's high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, which identified "a clear pattern of targeted violence and discrimination directed at people because they are, or are perceived to be" lesbian, gay, bisexual. or transgender.
The report cited reports of killings, rape, physical attacks, torture, arbitrary detention, the denial of right of assembly, and discrimination in employment, health, and education.
Among the disturbing examples cited was an account of lesbians being gang-raped in Kyrgyzstan, and an Uzbek human rights defender who was charged with homosexuality, beaten by police, and threatened with sexual assault. The report also documented the Russian authorities' refusal to allow gay-rights activists to hold parades.
In the report, the UN's Pillay acknowleges that for "some states," homosexuality conflicts with local culture, values, or public opinion. But she also writes, "The balance between tradition and culture, on the one hand, and universal human rights on the other, must be struck in favor of rights."
Written by Richard Solash with additional AFP reporting