UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. General Assembly voted on Monday to create a new, more powerful agency for women, in a move supporters hailed as a breakthrough for women's equality and rights.
An assembly resolution called for the amalgamation of four existing U.N. offices dealing with women's affairs into a single body to be headed by an under-secretary-general -- a higher rank than exists at present on the issue.
It requested Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to produce within a year a comprehensive proposal that would specify the new entity's mission statement, organizational arrangements, funding and executive board.
The unanimous vote followed three years of negotiations.
The existing offices for women have less clout and smaller budgets than a full-fledged agency. The best known of them, the U.N. Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM, is a subsidiary of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).
British International Development Minister Gareth Thomas, in a statement, called the move "a landmark moment for gender equality and women's rights across the world."
He said the body "will have a far more powerful voice to help fight for the rights of women, including in many countries where they are still treated as second class citizens. But for this new agency to make a difference, it has to be formed quickly, deliver results and have a strong leader."
The European Union also welcomed the move. Swedish Development Minister Gunilla Carlsson, speaking for the bloc, said the decision would strengthen women's rights, an area where she said the United Nations had "long been too weak."
But advocacy group Oxfam described as "deplorable" the decision -- which it blamed on "some member states" -- not to specify a mandate for the new agency at this stage. Oxfam officials said they understood the delay resulted from pressure from within the "Group of 77" developing states.
While calling the creation of the new agency potentially exciting, Daniela Rosche, head of Oxfam's gender campaign, said it would "mean absolutely nothing if member states fail to give it a clear mission."
(Reporting by Patrick Worsnip, editing by Anthony Boadle)