The United Nations is poised to deliver a historic call for gay rights Friday when it votes on a U.S.-backed resolution that demands equality for people regardless of sexual orientation and orders a global investigation of violence and discrimination against gays.
Obama administration officials believe they have a majority of support in the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva for the resolution, which would be the first such statement to pass a U.N. vote.
The issue of gay rights has polarized nations at the U.N. for years. Despite growing acceptance for gay rights Western nations and parts of Latin America, lawyers say human rights treaties don't offer adequate protection against discrimination and mistreatment.
The resolution would take a first step toward redressing the problem. Drafted by South Africa, it expresses "grave concerns at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world," against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. It commissions a global inquiry, to be completed by year's end, into their treatment.
The administration has led diplomatic efforts in support of the measure, seeking to reverse years of U.S. ambiguity on the subject under President George W. Bush.
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. The international push has coincided with domestic efforts to end the ban on gays openly serving in the U.S. military and discrimination against gays in federal housing.
The Bush administration didn't support a French resolution at the U.N. General Assembly in 2008 that addressed similar concerns, and joined Russia, China, the Vatican and Islamic states in opposition. The U.S. said it feared some language that would infringe on the right of American states to legislate matters such as gay marriage.
In December, the Obama administration held back from voting for a U.N. resolution condemning killings of vulnerable people around the world after proposing an amendment to protect people based on their sexual orientation. At issue was a separate legal dispute over international human rights law.
U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions aren't legally binding. They reflect the view of the majority of the world's nations.
But gay rights advocates say they are important even when their immediate legal effect is null. Because gay rights are hotly contested in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, a resolution helps establish a legal norm such as those that exist for the protection of women, religious minorities, children and other vulnerable or marginalized groups. Over time, many of these become undisputed standards of human rights.
American officials believe they've secured a slim majority of the council's 47 members in clear support of the gay rights resolution.