GENEVA — The UN Human Rights Council on Friday passed a historic resolution that seeks equal rights for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation, marking progress for gay rights despite strong Arab and African opposition.
The resolution was passed narrowly with 23 votes in favor, 19 against and three abstentions, after an emotional debate that saw African states accusing South Africa of breaking ranks with the region and siding with the West after it introduced the issue.
Presenting the text, South Africa said that "no one should be subject to discrimination or violence due to sexual orientation or gender identity."
It also stressed that the resolution "does not seek to impose values on states, but seeks to initiate dialogue" on the issue.
However, Arab and African states were strongly opposed, with countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference demanding a vote.
"OIC states are deeply concerned by the ... resolution that intends to discuss very controversial notions that are on sexual orientation," said Pakistan's envoy, speaking on behalf of the OIC.
The OIC is "seriously concerned at the attempt to introduce to the UN some notion that has no legal foundations in any international human rights instruments," he added.
"We are even more disturbed on the attempt to focus on certain persons on the grounds of their sexual interest and behavior," he said.
Nigeria, speaking on behalf of the African group, meanwhile attacked South Africa for its stance.
The Nigerian envoy said African states were willing to discuss the issue "until we have consensus in the traditional pattern in which we discuss resolutions."
"But once we did not achieve that consensus, South Africa took it forward without all other members of the African group, in other words, breaking the tradition of African group," he recounted to the council.
"It grieves my mind because South Africa is the giant pillar of Africa," said the Nigerian, who also claimed that more than 90 percent of South Africans did not support the resolution.
"It is interesting that Western countries are your partners today," he told South Africa.
But Friday's move was hailed as historic by other states including Argentina and the United States as well as by rights activists.
"Today we make history in the fight for basic fairness and equality," declared US envoy Eileen Donahoe.
"Today we've taken an important step forward in our recognition that human rights are indeed universal. We recognize that violence against a person because of who they are is wrong.
"The right to choose who we love and to share life with those we love is sacred. Further, we send the unequivocal message that each human being deserves equal protection from violence and discrimination," she added.
The resolution "affirms that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms ... without distinction of any kind."
It also commissions a study on discriminatory laws and violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Ahead of the vote, Peter Splinter, Amnesty International's representative at the United Nations, told AFP that the resolution is "very significant to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in their struggle towards the full enjoyment of their human rights that such violations of their human rights are recognized at this high level."
Homosexuality is still illegal in 76 countries, according to Amnesty.