By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The top U.N. human rights body declared on Friday there should be no discrimination or violence against people based on their sexual orientation, a vote Western countries called historic but Islamic states rejected.
The controversial resolution marked the first time that the Human Rights Council recognized the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, diplomats said.
The text, presented by South Africa, was adopted by 23 countries in favor, 19 against with 3 abstentions and one delegation absent during voting at the council. Libya's membership in the 47-member Geneva forum was suspended in March.
"Today, we have taken an important step forward in our recognition that human rights are indeed universal. We recognize that violence against a person because of who they are is wrong," U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the talks, praising the "simple but historic resolution."
"The right to choose who we love, to share life with those we love is sacred. Further, we send the unequivocal message that each human being deserves equal protection from violence and discrimination," she said.
Delegations from countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Bangladesh took the floor to reject the initiative.
Mauritania's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Cheikh Ahmed Ould Zahaf, said that the issue did not fall within the scope of any international human rights treaty.
"This issue has nothing to do with human rights," he said, speaking before the vote. "What we find here is an attempt to change the natural right of a human being with an unnatural right. That is why calls on all members to vote against it."
Homosexuality is generally taboo in Islamic states as it is seen as a violation of religious and cultural values. Homosexual men in the Gulf are regularly arrested and sentenced to prison terms.
Mexican Ambassador Juan Jose Gomez Camacho said the issue had nothing to do with imposing Western or other values, but with non-discrimination. People are already protected under international treaties against discrimination on grounds of race, religion, and gender, he said.
"Non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is exactly the same," Camacho said, winning applause.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)