Monthly Archives: June 2011

UK: Let’s pack the Lords with clerics, says Lord Astor

Three weeks after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, condemned the “frightening” Coalition, David Cameron’s wider family is lending him support.

Viscount Astor, who is married to the Prime Minister’s mother-in-law, Annabel, has made a rare speech in the House of Lords, calling for an end to the Church of England’s privileged position in public life.

Lord Astor proposed that in any reform of the Upper House, the Church should lose its unique position on the Benches Spiritual. “Other churches and faiths should be represented here,” he said.

The intervention by William Astor, who married the mother of Samantha Cameron in 1976, is significant as he has kept a low political profile since Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005. Astor was a junior minister in Sir John Major’s government.

In April, The Sunday Telegraph disclosed that Tory officials had drawn up a paper which called for a wide range of different churches to be represented once reforms to the Lords are carried out. This is, however, the first indication that the suggestion has Cameron’s support.

Currently 26 Anglican bishops have seats in the Lords, but Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is drawing up a draft bill setting out wholesale changes to the Lords that are expected to include provisions for hundreds of existing peers, including the bishops, to be evicted while at least 80 per cent of new members are elected.

The Telegraph | Tim Walker | 29 June 2011

Italy: Vatican colonialism and cowardice of politicians

Interviewed by Repubblica, commenting on New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage, philosopher Gianni Vattimo, MEP, believer, gay activist, was very clear: “Italy is the problem for Europe. It’s not the fault of the Italians, but it’s because of Vatican colonialism and the cowardice of politicians.”

Vattimo attacked the Catholic Church also for its claim that its doctrine is “natural law”, not only about same-sex unions, but also about bioethics, end of life, divorce.

According to the Italian philosopher, despite the majority of Italians support human rights, politicians prefer not to lose the vote and influence of bishops and parish priests.

UAAR | Stefano Marullo | 27th June 2011

Ireland: FF backs multi-faith primary schools

THE OBJECTIVES of multi-faith understanding and social harmony “are best served by children of all faiths and none learning together”, the Fianna Fáil party has said in submission to the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector.

The document was presented to party members at a conference on education in Birr, Co Offaly, yesterday. “We appreciate that some parents do not want their children to undergo faith formation in any one creed at school. At the same time, we recognise that other parents view faith formation as a vital part of their child’s education. We believe that it is possible, and desirable, for both of these perspectives to be respected and accommodated in the one school,” it said.

It continued that “this philosophy underpinned the announcement of a new pilot patronage model, the community national school, by the then minister for education and science, Mary Hanafin TD, in 2007.” The model had been piloted in five locations.

In the new community national schools, “children of different faiths are taught together for most of the school day. All children take part as one group in a multi-belief programme that enables them to learn about all faiths and grow to understand each other’s beliefs.

“For three or four weeks during the year, children spend all belief classes in the main faith groups (Catholics, Other Christians, Muslims and Other, to date) and are taught faith-specific material. As well as those of faith, the needs of atheist and humanist children are also catered for.” The key motive for the party’s support for such schools was “a desire to ensure whole community inclusion in our schools, not just of children of different faiths, but also of those from different socio-economic or cultural backgrounds and those with special needs,” it said.

A further advantage was that the approach could accommodate diversity without the extra investment “that would be required to provide a range of different stand-alone religious and non-religious schools within every community”.

While cherishing the contribution the churches have made to education, it “would be concerned if the divesting of schools by the Catholic Church was to lead over time to children becoming segregated on religious lines into different schools. Such segregation could seriously undermine social harmony in an increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural environment. We believe all schools should be multi-faith in their enrolment policies and education practices, albeit under different patrons.”

Acknowledging the role Educate Together and supporting its ongoing involvement, the submission continued that “we believe the community national school model we announced in 2007 should in principle have an increasing role to play . . . However, we would only support a national roll-out of this model following evaluation and improvement as necessary in light of experience on the ground. A gradual transition in the patronage arrangements of existing schools is vital,” it added.

Irish Times | Patsy McGarry | Monday 27th June 2011

Germany: Politicians plan boycott of pope’s Bundestag speech

Several Social Democratic parliamentarians are planning to boycott the speech Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to give to the Bundestag in September. They accuse the pontiff of oppressing millions around the world.

The boycott call is contained in a draft document drawn up by Rolf Schwanitz, who has sent it to all his 146 fellow Social Democratic Party (SPD) members of the Bundestag and asked for their signatures. The document was made available to the Rheinische Post newspaper.

In it, Schwanitz slams the planned speech for September 22 by the pope in front of the parliamentary chamber, saying the Bundestag would be abused as a “decorative accessory” and was no place for “missionary work.”

Schwanitz, who leads a working group called “secular members of the SPD,” called the pope the “last absolute monarch” in Europe. He also said that the pontiff’s stances on women’s rights and contraception, gave him a good deal of the blame for “the ongoing global AIDS epidemic as well as the oppression, exploitation and stigmatization of millions of people.”

In the text, Schwanitz said other SPD members had signaled they would be absent on the day the pope spoke. Party sources told the Rheinische Post that about a half dozen parliamentarians planned on going through with the boycott.

But the head of the SPD Bundestag group, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has rejected the initiative and Thomas Oppermann, another high-ranking SPD parliamentarian, called the pope-critical document “unfortunate.”

Conservative parliamentarians like Hermann Kues of the Christian Democrats have shown outrage at the boycott campaign.

“I am shocked over the ignorance and delusion here,” he said. “Without Christianity, our country is simply impossible to imagine.”

The Local | 25th June 2011

UK: The secret scandal of Britain’s caste system

Why isn’t the Equality and Human Rights Commission taking action against this prejudice?

You can tell that speakers are preparing to say something scandalous when they assert that “militant atheists” are the moral equivalents of the religious militants that so afflict humanity. Trevor Phillips, whose flighty management of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is becoming a scandal, was no exception when he announced last week that British believers were “under siege” from “fashionable” atheists.

If his claim that “people who want to drive religion underground are much more active, much more vocal” contained a jot of truth, we would have read the following stories in the days after his intervention.

• Inflamed after reading an acerbic passage by Richard Dawkins, “fashionable” Belfast atheists decide to lay siege to Catholic homes in the Short Strand area of the city. They terrify its residents and attack the police with petrol bombs and fireworks. (As it was, the riots were the work of Belfast Protestants motivated by a hatred of Catholicism. They were met by Republican IRA “dissidents”, filled with an equal hatred of Protestantism.)

• “Vocal” Iraqi secularists decide that they want to drive the Shia Muslims in Baghdad underground. They ignite bombs in a Shia market during its busiest time of the week and a mosque, killing 40 in all. (As it was, the murders were the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, which regards Shia Muslims as heretics and was determined to demonstrate again that no one is as murderously “Islamophobic” as Islamists are.

• Free-thinking Americans decide they have had enough of religious leaders laying down the law. They descend on the New York State Senate and heckle and jostle a woman rabbi as she tries to influence a debate on gay marriage. (As it was, the heckling and jostling was done by Orthodox Jews, who said the rabbi had no right to speak for Judaism because she was a lesbian.)

Since the end of communist-inspired persecutions in all the old socialist countries bar China and North Korea, religious hatred has become unique among the prejudices. Overwhelmingly, it is directed by the religious against the religious. Domineering believers threaten members of their own faith when they break taboos by experimenting with new thoughts and ways of living. Or they engage in sectarian conflicts with other religions.

Trevor Phillips’s attack on “fashionable” atheists for exercising their right to speak their minds shows he does not begin to understand modern sectarianism. From his ignorance flows a cowardly refusal to face down those who would bully and harass others, as a story that deserves more attention than it has received shows.

British Asians, secularists and Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians have been trying for years to persuade the government to tackle caste discrimination. They have had no success because the treatment of untouchables is one of the great unmentionables of British politics. They are certainly the victims of a form of religious prejudice – the sanction for the oppression of lower castes in a pre-ordained hierarchy comes from Hindu creation myths. Yet caste prejudice does not fit easily into established views of how discrimination works, because caste divisions exist among Sikhs, Muslims and Christians whose families came from the sub-continent, as well as Hindus.

Faced with the prospect of confronting the prejudices of core supporters, the Labour government preferred holding on to seats to living by liberal principles and backed away from extending anti-discrimination law to cover caste. With Labour gone, campaigners for just treatment for tens of thousands of British Asians have a glimmer of hope.

They are trying to persuade the coalition to take seriously a study of bullying and harassment conducted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. It is a dispiriting read – little more than a list of pointless cruelties. The Indian supervisor of an NHS worker discovers that he is from a lower caste and makes his life such a misery he becomes ill under the pressure and is suspended; a social services care worker refuses to help an elderly woman wash herself because the old lady is from a lower caste and so it goes on through dozens of examples.

The casual observer of British politics might have thought that a voluble quangocrat, who is always willing to fill empty airtime with heart rending cries for greater equality, would have denounced caste prejudice with unembarrassed vigour. For once, however, Phillips is silent. A search of the Equality and Human Rights Commission records shows that it ignores caste discrimination in Britain.

When I phone its press office to ask why, its public relations officers fail to return my calls. Without hearing his side of the story, I can only guess that Phillips does not like admitting that ethnic minorities as well as white people are capable of prejudice. He may worry, too, that an honest stance would require him taking on religious lobbyists, such as Hindu Council UK, which questioned “the existence of caste discrimination in the UK” on Friday and claimed that the issue was being manipulated by Christians eager to convert Hindus from their faith.

In this instance, Phillips not only refuses to campaign for the disadvantaged, but is alleged to hinder those who do. Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said he had been “no help at all. Advances we have made have been despite him, not because of him”. The normally mild-mannered Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury said that “Phillips has played an ignoble part in suppressing this issue.”

From the leftish point of view there is no good ground for keeping Phillips in post. The liberal left ought to know that caste discrimination is a greater evil than class discrimination because, whatever an individual’s accomplishments, he or she can never escape from the hereditary curse. It ought also to feel a tinge of shame that when the victims of prejudice try to start a new life by coming to Britain, they find that the old prejudice follows them here – and that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will do nothing about it.

From a Tory standpoint, the case against Phillips is as easy to make. When the government has had to raise taxes and cut spending, what purpose is served by carrying on spending taxpayers’ money on Phillips? With a bit of luck, left and right will soon agree that removing him from an office he is unfit to hold is a “fashionable cause” everyone can support.

The Observer| Nick Cohen | Sunday 26th June 2011

Ireland: Teachers seek end to faith rule

Requirement for ‘religious spirit’ at primary level should go, forum hears

A RULE requiring that a “religious spirit” runs through all the work done in primary schools should be dropped, education leaders said yesterday.

The calls were voiced at the Forum on Pluralism and Patronage in the Primary Sector, which is looking at ways of creating greater choice in schools.

The forum is examining how the system can provide a diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all religions and none.

Its work includes finding a process for the handover of some of the 90pc of Catholic schools to other patron bodies.

The central role of religion in primary schools was a major topic at the forum yesterday, the second of three days of public hearings.

There were calls for the abolition of Rule 68 in the Rules for National Schools, which dates back to the 1920s, prescribing that a “religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school”.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said it was not fair to parents who did not share the school’s ethos, and who had made arrangements for their children not to attend religious education classes.

INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan said it left teachers open to charges of proselytisation.

The union also told the hearing that the requirement on teachers to uphold the religious ethos of Catholic schools could cause difficulties. Teachers who were divorced or homosexual were fearful that it could be a barrier to promotion prospects.

The Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA) ,which operates five community national schools, also called for an end to Rule 68.

The issue of the teaching of religion in schools was also under scrutiny.

The multi-denominational group Educate Together does not support religious instruction as part of the school day.

However, the IVEA said suggestions all aspects of religious education take place outside the school day was overly restrictive, and interfered with the rights of parents who wanted it.

Forum chair Professor John Coolahan said that there may be a state prohibition to the opening of a non-denominational school, a matter that they would be investigating.

A non-denominational school is one where there can be no mention of religion at all. This contrasts with an Educate Together school, which has a broad education programme on world religions, although it doesn’t provide formal religious instruction.

Irish Independent | Katherine Donnelly | Friday June 24 2011

Scotland: A chorus of protest from all who cherish freedom

The proposed new legislation to control sectarian singing in Scottish football grounds is absurd, impractical and undemocratic

WHAT has caused the sudden change? Little more than a month ago, Alex Salmond was re-elected on the basis of his four-year record of sure-footed competence. A few weeks on he is blundering around, making enemies and antagonising people. First, he launches gratuitous attacks on judges and lawyers. Now, he is ramming through the most sinister piece of legislation since the establishment of the devolved parliament.

It’s the majority, stupid. Constrained by its minority position the previous SNP administration did, in the main, nothing, and did it very well, gaining resounding support from the electorate for its thoughtful inaction. Unconstrained, with an overwhelming majority, the gloves have come off. Taking the post of Presiding Officer, securing the chairmanship of the most important committees, cutting short debate – all these actions eliminate checks and balances. This is the insolence of office.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill is a bad bill which, in most democratic parliaments, would be subject to rigorous scrutiny and amendment to turn it into something workable. “Hoseanna” Cunningham, in her evidence to the justice committee, was forced by the logic of the bill to expose its absurdity. Out along with the Irish national anthem and Rule Britannia go songs from American musicals (You’ll Never Walk Alone) and hits from the ’90s (Just Can’t Get Enough and Simply the Best) because any song adopted by the opposition could be seen to be provocative. Is it the words or the music that are offensive? Fans are nothing if not creative. Will they be allowed sing new words to old tunes to avoid arrest? Is the offering of a silent prayer before a penalty kick offensive?

The bill is woolly and subjective. It does not, because it cannot, specify which songs or symbols are banned. So it has to rely on subjective assessment and the context in which these songs are sung or the symbols used. The courts will find most of this unenforceable. The bill refers to “behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive”. What reasonable person would be provoked by an idiot standing beside his supporters’ bus blessing himself? Who could be offended by the words “No Pope of Rome, no chapel to sadden my eye, No nuns and no priests, no rosary beads, Every day is the 12th of July”. That’s a hysterically funny parody, not an invitation to riot. But of course, the sectarian hooligans at whom the law is to be directed are not reasonable persons. They’re irreligious idiots. So how can the courts apply this standard?

Such is the SNP’s control over the consciences and common sense of its new MSPs that this nonsense will sail through unless sufficient pressure is brought from outwith parliament to stop it.

The police won’t speak out. By calling for a summit last season, they started all this then ran away. We haven’t heard from the chief constable of Strathclyde since. Yet, if they were too scared to use the powers of arrest they already have to control unruly crowds, players and managers, they must know that they will be standing idly by when the Celtic end orchestrate a Mexican wave of signs of the Cross. But the police are never going to turn down more powers to control the citizenship. They’re just going to ask for more money to pay for the overtime necessary to lock them up.

The Catholic Church should be leading the protests. And there is some indication that it is prepared to risk the mutual admiration between itself and the SNP to do so. Peter Kearney, its spokesman, himself a former SNP candidate, puts his finger on the greatest weakness of the bill – that it is attempting to criminalise what should be a matter of conscience, the misuse of legitimate symbols. But, for once, the Church does not appear to be speaking with one voice. Right-wing Bishop Joseph Devine takes the opposite view, wanting those who exploit “eminent” symbols to be held to account by the state. Archbishop Mario Conti, writing from his luxury villa on the southside of Glasgow, ascribes sectarianism to “poverty, alcoholism and violence” but seems more intent on keeping an examination of the role of Catholic schools out of the debate than condemning the irrelevancy of the proposed legislation to the tackling of these causes.

Celtic and Rangers, meanwhile, are keeping their heads down. It’s a break for them that the buck for cracking down on offensive singing, and thus angering supporters, passes from them to the police. But Celtic should be objecting. One of the strong threads of the Celtic tradition is support for human rights. If the club could defy the might of the Soviet Union over its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it can stand up to this dictatorial law. John Reid, who was a real Home Secretary, should use his scathing wit to expose the absurdity and unconstitutional nature of a bill that seeks to restrict freedom of expression. And in a show that would be a powerful rejection of sectarianism he should be joined by the Orange Order. This organisation is as much political as it is religious, dedicated to preserving the freedoms won by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the rights secured thereafter. What kind of country is it that refuses to allow its members to condemn a church leader that it considers the anti-Christ?

This proposed law has brought an element of farce to what is a shameful, difficult, deep-seated but limited problem. This is a problem which is being solved.

Painfully slowly, yes, but sectarianism is on the way out. Rushed legislation leading to an unenforceable law takes us no faster down that road. All it will do is unjustly curtail freedom of speech.

Fortunately, the UK Supreme Court will overturn any convictions which involve breaches of human and civil rights. It’s one of the few protections remaining from a government that has quickly demonstrated its authoritarianism.

The Scotsman | Michael Kelly | 23 June 2011

Spain: priests’ group criticises pope fore enlisting corporate sponsors for visit

MADRID, June 22 (Reuters) – A group of 120 Spanish Catholic priests have criticised church leaders for signing up a list of high-profile corporate sponsors for a visit by the Pope in August, saying authorities had given in to temptation.

In a rare joint letter, the priests told Archbishop of Madrid Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela the sponsorship deals reinforced the impression the church was a privileged institution.

“It’s been necessary to form a pact with the economic and political powers which reinforces the image of the church as a privileged institution, close to power, and the social scandal this implies, especially in the context of the economic crisis,” the priests said in an open letter.

Organisers of Pope Benedict’s visit, scheduled for August 18-21 as part of the celebrations of World Youth Day, have mounted a nationwide advertising campaign, backed by well-known multinationals and Spain’s top companies.

Corporate logos of the companies, including Coca Cola , Telefonica , Santander and Iberia , fill the sponsorship page of the official visit website http://www.madrid11.com/.

“To trust in the strength of power and money … is to give in to a temptation as old as the Church,” said the letter.

“No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money,” the letter said, citing the passage from the Bible, Matthew 6:24.

The Archbishop declined to comment.

The 10-page open letter, posted on the “Priests of Madrid Forum” website earlier this week — http://forocurasdemadrid.org/ — also criticised at length some of the companies’ roles in the economic crisis.

“The crisis has its origin in the banks’ and large groups’ uncontrolled desire for profits,” the priests wrote.

“We believe the Cardinal, concerned about the multi-million budget for the event, has chosen the worst collaborators.”

A visit by the head of the Catholic church to Britain was roundly criticised last year for its high cost to taxpayers, estimated at around 10 million pounds.

Reuters | Paul Day and Philippa Fletcher | 22nd June 2011

See also: “Spanish priests’ group protests corporate sponsorship of World Youth Day”, Catholic Culture.

UK: Heads should roll after this latest Catholic abuse cover up

Fr Kit Cunningham’s paedophile past: heads should roll after the Rosminian order’s disgraceful cover-up

BBC1 will tonight screen a documentary, Abused: Breaking the Silence, that establishes beyond doubt that Fr Kit Cunningham, the jovial parish priest of St Ethedreda’s church and for many years unofficial padre to Fleet Street, committed the most disgusting paedophile crimes as a young missionary in Africa. Fr Kit died last year – but he confessed his guilt shortly before his death, in a letter to one of his victims, and also returned his MBE to Buckingham Palace in a feeble gesture of repentance.

If you want to learn full details of his crimes, and those of other members of the Rosminian order, watch the programme. But, just in case there are any members of the Fr Kit fan club who suspect that he has been posthumously stitched up, let me insist that this is not the case. He sexually assaulted prep school boys at the order’s school in Soli, Tanzania, and in at least one case forced a boy to perform a sex act on him.

Fr Cunningham received warm obituaries when he died last December aged 79. That’s not a surprise: many a party was enlivened by his benevolent, boozy personality and he set high standards of liturgy at Ely Place. I myself have been the recipient of his kindness; when vague rumours of unspecified misbehaviour began to circulate immediately after his death, I advised the Catholic Herald that he should not be judged guilty without evidence. The paper scaled down its planned tribute to this “legendary” priest while it tried to find out what the fuss was about; it contacted the Provincial of the Rosminians in England, Fr David Myers – but he said not a word about any paedophile offences and, as a result, neither did the Herald or the rest of the media. We were quite deliberately kept in the dark.

You will learn from tonight’s programme that, as Peter Stanford wrote in Sunday’s Observer, “on the day that Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Britain last September, was in Westminster Cathedral expressing his ‘deep sorrow to innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes’, the Rosminian order was writing to refuse to pay any compensation for what it has openly acknowledged are the crimes of four of its own priests”.

Peter Stanford was married by Fr Kit, who also baptised his son; like me, he found him an amiable and comforting presence, and – knowing nothing of the paedophile crimes – wrote an affectionate obituary of him in the Guardian. The obituary writers for the Telegraph and the Catholic Herald also knew nothing. Yet, as we now know, Fr Myers was extremely well-informed, and had been for a long time. Let me quote from an article just published on the Herald’s website by Francis Phillips, who wrote the paper’s obit of Cunningham:

Little did I realise when I briefly mentioned in the obituary that he “had spent 10 years as a missionary in Tanzania”, that it was during this period, in the late 1960s, that Fr Cunningham had not only regularly sexually and psychologically abused young boys, the sons of expatriate Britons, in St Michael’s School, Soni, in the then Tanganyika, but that he had also covered up for fellow priests who he knew were doing the same thing.

Full-page articles in the Times and the Observer (the latter written by Peter Stanford) make it clear that these are not merely allegations of as yet unproven abuse. It appears that Fr Cunningham had quietly sent back his MBE last year, at the same time writing to his victims: “My conscience is deeply disturbed by the breach of trust that God placed in me as a Catholic priest. Many of you have suffered and been scarred by your experiences. After much reflection I have decided to return my MBE.”

So, an admission of guilt which tarnishes forever the memories his wide circle of friends have of him; which casts a shadow over the parish that he brought to life and where he was pastor for so many years; and which makes all the fulsome tributes written after his death now ring very hollow – not to speak of the long anguish and emotional scars suffered by his victims, now in middle age. And the worst aspect of all is what looks like a cover up in the Church; not just priests covering up for each other in a local culture of sinful complicity, but the Rosminian order itself: it knew of the truth of the allegations against Fr Cunningham at least a year before his death if not longer – and yet they still held a memorial service in January which duly echoed all the tributes paid to him on his death. This is appalling.

Indeed it is. The BBC documentary ends with a tape recording of Fr Myers delivering the memorial address as if nothing had happened. It will turn the stomachs of the Rosminians’ victims – brave, articulate, angry men who emerge with great credit from the programme – and it should turn our stomachs, too. According to the documentary, Myers attempted to arrange a “reconciliation” between victims and abusers last year; but the order would rather hang on to its money because it apparently has better uses for it than to pay compensation to the men who, as little boys, had their penises fondled (among many other revolting acts) by Rosminian clergy.

You won’t hear any excuses from me for this cover-up by the Catholic Church. My understanding is that other allegations will soon be made public. If the Rosminian order goes bankrupt and Myers is forced out of office as a result of these revelations, then so much the better.

The Telegraph | Damian Thompson | 21st June 2011

 

UN Gay Rights Protection Resolution Hailed As Historic Moment

The UN Human Rights Council has passed a historic resolution calling for universal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people.

GENEVA — The United Nations endorsed the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people for the first time ever Friday, passing a resolution hailed as historic by the U.S. and other backers and decried by some African and Muslim countries.

The declaration was cautiously worded, expressing “grave concern” about abuses because of sexual orientation and commissioning a global report on discrimination against gays.

But activists called it an important shift on an issue that has divided the global body for decades, and they credited the Obama administration’s push for gay rights at home and abroad.

“This represents a historic moment to highlight the human rights abuses and violations that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face around the world based solely on who they are and whom they love,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement.

Following tense negotiations, members of the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council narrowly voted in favor of the declaration put forward by South Africa, with 23 votes in favor and 19 against.

Backers included the U.S., the European Union, Brazil and other Latin American countries. Those against included Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Pakistan. China, Burkina Faso and Zambia abstained, Kyrgyzstan didn’t vote and Libya was suspended from the rights body earlier.

The resolution expressed “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

More important, activists said, it also established a formal U.N. process to document human rights abuses against gays, including discriminatory laws and acts of violence. According to Amnesty International, consensual same-sex relations are illegal in 76 countries worldwide, while harassment and discrimination are common in many more.

“Today’s resolution breaks the silence that has been maintained for far too long,” said John Fisher of the gay rights advocacy group ARC International.

The resolution calls for a panel discussion next spring with “constructive, informed and transparent dialogue on the issue of discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against” gays, lesbians and transgender people.

The prospect of having their laws scrutinized in this way went too far for many of the council’s 47-member states.

“We are seriously concerned at the attempt to introduce to the United Nations some notions that have no legal foundation,” said Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s envoy to the U.N. in Geneva, speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Nigeria claimed the proposal went against the wishes of most Africans. A diplomat from the northwest African state of Mauritania called the resolution “an attempt to replace the natural rights of a human being with an unnatural right.”

Boris Dittrich of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch said it was important for the U.S. and Western Europe to persuade South Africa to take the lead on the resolution so that other non-Western countries would be less able to claim the West was imposing its values.

At the same time, he noted that the U.N. has no enforcement mechanism to back up the resolution. “It’s up to civil society to name and shame those governments that continue abuses,” Dittrich said.

The Obama administration has been pushing for gay rights both domestically and internationally.

In March, the U.S. issued a nonbinding declaration in favor of gay rights that gained the support of more than 80 countries at the U.N. In addition, Congress recently repealed the ban on gays openly serving in the military, and the Obama administration said it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the U.S. law that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

The vote in Geneva came at a momentous time for the gay rights debate in the U.S. Activists across the political spectrum were on edge Friday as New York legislators considered a bill that would make the state the sixth – and by far the biggest – to allow same-sex marriage.

Asked what good the U.N. resolution would do for gays and lesbians in countries that opposed the resolution, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel Baer said it was a signal “that there are many people in the international community who stand with them and who support them, and that change will come.”

“It’s a historic method of tyranny to make you feel that you are alone,” he said. “One of the things that this resolution does for people everywhere, particularly LGBT people everywhere, is remind them that they are not alone.”

[Associated Press writer David Crary in New York contributed to this report.]

HuffPost World | Frank Jordans | 17th June 2011

 

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