The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a post-war, post-Holocaust attempt to recognize and protect the dignity inherent in all individuals. But the dream it embodies has never been widely extended to homosexuals. Now, more than 60 years later, a UN body has finally noticed, and spoken up.
Prodded by South Africa, which dared to challenge the rest of the continent, the UN Human Rights Council (a body that seems saner since it kicked out despotic Libya, which had chaired the council) has asserted that individuals should not be subject to discrimination or violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The resolution, passed 23 to 19 with three abstentions, said it was not seeking to "impose values," but to start a dialogue that would help bring about an end to such discrimination and violence. Predictably, other African countries pilloried South Africa for siding with the West, but South Africa was eloquent in reply - when some of its people were unjustly imprisoned during the apartheid years, the anti-apartheid movement received moral and political support from all over the world, and did not reject support based on sexual orientation.
The resolution went on to oblige the UN Commission on Human Rights to report back on anti-gay policies internationally, and to set the stage for a discussion next year.
No, none of this is legally binding, but that's not the point. The Universal Declaration wasn't legally binding, either, but several important legal instruments followed, and the world advanced.
Russia did not do itself proud by standing apart from Europe and siding with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uganda against the resolution. Nor did China, which claims to want some moral sway in the world, by abstaining alongside Burkina Faso and Zambia.
Like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Universal Declaration doesn't expressly mention sexual orientation - but some day, the world may read it in. That day won't come soon, though. In Kenya this week, the new chief justice was asked if he is gay - he wears an ear stud, and gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. This past weekend, in eastern European capitals Zagreb, Sofia and Budapest, riot police were needed to protect small gay pride parades. But thanks to South Africa and others, this subject will continue to speak its name.