A major milestone took place at the UN yesterday. Sixty years after the organisation adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 68 countries signed a non-binding delcaration sponsored by France and the Netherlands demanding the worldwide decriminalisation of homosexuality.
This was the first time that any gay rights issue had been pressed in a large motion at the United Nations, and it was interesting to see that the body was just about evenly split, with 68 countries supporting and 60 countries rejecting the declaration. The nations which rejected the the resolution were largely Arab and African states, with one notable exception: the only Western country to refuse to sign the declaration was the United States.
This is perhaps not surprising considering that homosexuality was only nationally decriminalised in the US five years ago. The Supreme Court decision of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 ruled that a Texas law making homosexual sex a crime was unconstitutional, and in the process invalidated a number of such state laws across the country (this was the decision which Senator Rick Santorum infamously said would lead to decriminalisation of beastiality). But in light of that recent decision, it seems unusual that the Bush Administration are saying that they can't sign the treaty because it would interfere with states' rights. The 2003 decision ruled that states don't have the right to criminalize homosexuality, so that argument is non-sensical.
Of course any country can sign the declaration at a later point, and perhaps the Obama administration will revisit the issue when it comes into office. It is rather embarassing, and incredible, for the United States to be the only Western country that has refused to sign the document.
But what I found even more interesting that the US's embarassing stance on this issue was the fact that the EU was competely united behind it - all 26 member nations signed the resolution. This is impressive considering that gay rights have been one of the most divisive issues within the European Union - particularly with new entrant Poland, an extreemly religious and conservative country. So to see that Brussels was able to crack the whip and make sure that countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuana and Estonia supported the resolution is quite impressive. Even Ireland and Italy might have balked at signing such a declaration a decade ago. It's a promising sign for gay advocates in Europe who would like to see EU-wide gay rights policies implemented one day in the future.
Homosexuality remains a criminal offence in more than 80 countries, and is punishable by death in seven nations.