The Obama administration is reversing the position of its predecessor and is endorsing a U.N. General Assembly statement sponsored by France and the Netherlands condemning human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The statement, aimed at criminal penalties against homosexuality around the world, was signed by 66 U.N. member states when it came up for a vote in the assembly in December, including all member countries of the European Union and regional U.S. allies such as Japan, Australia and Israel. It was widely opposed by Muslim countries.
The Bush administration refused to sign the measure on grounds that it might commit the U.S. federal government to override laws by the individual states on issues such as discrimination by landlords or employers.
However, Acting State Department Spokesman Robert Wood told reporters that an interagency review by the Obama administration found that endorsing the U.N. declaration does not commit the U.S. federal government to legal obligations.
He said the United States is "pleased" to join other countries that have declared themselves against rights violations based on sexual orientation.
"The United States is an outspoken defender of human rights and critic of human rights abuses around the world. As such, we join other supporters of this statement and we will continue to remind countries of the importance of respecting the human rights of all people in all appropriate international fora," Wood said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Brussels earlier this month that human rights is one of the pillars of U.S. foreign policy, and that the new administration takes persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians very seriously.
Nearly 60 countries, including members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference as well as Russia and China, oppose the U.N. declaration. A rival statement presented by Syria said protecting homosexuality could lead to social normalization and possibly legalization of deplorable acts, including pedophilia.
According to the sponsors of the anti-discrimination document, consensual same-sex relations are a criminal offense in more than 70 countries, and in several countries homosexual acts can be punishable by death.