In Europe, same-sex showdown moves to UN

Milan, Italy - The European Union (EU) wants this week's 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to also mark the expansion of the document to condemn the criminalization of same-sex relations.

A delegation from the EU hopes to convince the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday to formally condemn treating homosexuals as criminals. The proposed declaration is intended to pressure the 80 countries that still consider same-sex relations a crime, including a handful, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh, where the punishment is death.

Although all 27 member states of the EU support the proposal, resistance has come from the Vatican, which has criticized the declaration as a Trojan horse intended to eventually open the door to gay marriage. Most European countries do not recognize gay marriage, including the document's main sponsor, France. Only Spain and the Netherlands allow same-sex marriage, although 13 member states recognize some form of civil unions.

The nonbinding declaration does not mention marriage and would carry little, if any, legal weight. But, like the bitter fights in recent years over same-sex unions in the US, the issue is sparking vitriolic debates in Europe. Gay rights groups have accused the Catholic Church of aligning with dictatorships that sentence homosexuals to death. This was on display Saturday, when hundreds of protesters gathered in Vatican City's St. Peter's Square, some of them wearing nooses around their necks in tribute to two gay young men hanged in Iran in 2005.

Following the protests, the Association of Catholic Jurists issued a statement trying to clarify the position of the Church. According to the group's president, Francesco D'Agostino, "The Vatican endorses the decriminalization of homosexuality, but opposes the equality between different sexual orientation."

The Vatican has a nonvoting seat at the UN, but its ambassador is considered to be highly influential, especially regarding human rights.

"In recent years the Vatican has taken increasingly conservative positions," says Paolo Soldini, a columnist for the leftist Italian daily newspaper L'Unità. "But this is a new step, this is no longer about subtle issues, such as artificial insemination; here we are talking of [endorsing] direct discrimination."

The Vatican's rejection of the declaration comes at a sensitive time for Italy, Mr. Soldini says. In 2008, three Italians have been killed, reportedly because of their sexual orientation. And Rome's major gay nightclub has twice been set ablaze this year.

"Not only may this be interpreted as an endorsement of those countries that ban homosexuality, but this may also have negative repercussion within Italy, where hate crimes are on the rise," Soldini says.

The Vatican says that its main concern is stopping gay marriage: If the declaration passes, countries that "do not recognize the union of two people from the same sex would be humiliated and pressured," the Holy See's ambassador to the UN, Celestino Migliore, said last week.

The text has received the official endorsement of 53 nations. The US has thus far remained silent on the declaration, but a spokeswoman for the US delegation said on Monday that, "We're not in a position to sign on to it." The official declined to specify if this meant the US would oppose the declaration, however. "Discussions are still taking place," she says.

French and EU officials are optimistic they will obtain the majority required to be approved by the 192-member General Assembly of the UN. The body approved a similar EU-sponsored, nonbinding resolution last year condemning capital punishment, despite opposition from the US and several Muslim nations.

The introduction of the decriminalization declaration is planned for Wednesday, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a founding document of the UN. Considered the first universal statement on the basic principles of inalienable human rights, the declaration begins "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."