The United States has successfully persuaded the United Nations to include "sexual orientation" as a category of vulnerable populations whose targeted killings the world body condemns.
The resolution was adopted by the General Assembly on a vote of 122 in favor and 0 against, with 59 nations abstaining.
Controversy broke out after African and Arab states successfully stripped the resolution of a reference to killings for reasons of "sexual orientation," which was included along with killings for racial, national, ethnic, religious, or linguistic reasons, and killings of refugees, indigenous people, and other groups.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said she was "incensed" at the move and vowed to restore the original language in a U.S.-sponsored amendment, which was adopted.
In a statement issued after the December 21 vote, she said, "The United Nations General Assembly has sent a clear and resounding message that justice and human rights apply to all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation."
A spokesman for President Barack Obama said the U.S. leader "applauds those countries that supported the amendment." The statement continued, "Protecting gays and lesbians from state-sponsored discrimination is not a special right, it is a human right."
The United States was able to persuade several UN member states who were undecided on the issue to vote for the amendment, including Albania, Rwanda, and South Africa.
The effort was lauded by gay and lesbian communities in the United States. Human Rights Watch had appealed to UN members to include the category in its list of vulnerable populations that are targeted for extrajudicial killings.
"We think it is a huge victory, and we are very, very grateful to the countries who have supported us," said Boris Dittrich, the acting director of Human Rights Watch's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Program. "With the statement of South Africa and the voting in favor of the amendment, we really think there has been created a momentum for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] rights as human rights."
He said hate crimes that are perpetrated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity must be opposed as strongly as hate crimes on the basis of race or religion.
Speaking at a UN Human Rights Day event on December 10, Rice said the United States considers the protection of people whose sexual orientation makes them vulnerable inseparable from the broader defense of human rights.
"Around the world, laws that criminalize gay relationships don't just violate human rights," Rice said. "They hinder social cohesion, economic development, and public health. They reduce trust and cooperation among nations."
A heated exchange of statements and opinions in the General Assembly chamber delayed the voting for more than two hours. African and Asian states -- among them Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan -- resisted the inclusion of the "sexual orientation" reference, arguing that it is a personal matter and as such has no place among human rights issues.
Homosexuality is a crime in many African and Arab nations.
'We Cannot Be Silent'
The U.S. and EU position on the issue is in line with that of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has established himself as a firm advocate of the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender people.
Speaking at the UN Human Rights Day event, Ban said wherever there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day. Personal disapproval, or societal disapproval, he said, is no excuse to arrest, detain, imprison, harass, or torture anyone.
"As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity," he said. "When individuals are attacked, abused, or imprisoned because of their sexual orientation, we must speak out. We cannot stand by. We cannot be silent."
Although the UN resolution is not binding, it sends a powerful message across the world and symbolically offers protection to people with different sexual orientations even in places where it is outlawed.