South Africa refused to support a declaration by the United Nations General Assembly on Human Rights Day, December 18, calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
This is despite the fact that freedom of sexual orientation is enshrined in the South African Constitution and the fact that the country has enacted progressive legislation on gay marriages.
The move follows a string of controversial votes by South Africa in the UN Security Council, including a veto on a debate on the crisis in Zimbabwe.
South Africa was one of 126 countries which declined to endorse a declaration on gay rights sponsored by Argentina.
The declaration was described by Human Rights Watch as ”groundbreaking”.
In a bizarre twist, the South African judge recently appointed as the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, supported the declaration in a video-taped message broadcast during the general assembly debate.
Pillay said the ”task and challenge [is] to move beyond a debate on whether all human beings have rights”, to ”secure the climate for implementation”.
The declaration did not go to a vote, but drew support from 66 countries. It affirmed that no individual’s rights should be violated because of sexual orientation.
It is not binding, but paves the way for a similar statement to become a resolution – a stronger statement that would have to be voted on by the general assembly.
A counter-declaration was mooted by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of Muslim countries.
Countries such as Syria argued that homosexuality was a ”moral” matter each country should decide about for itself.
UN observers believe South Africa did not want to be seen to be going against its allies in the OIC, but a member of the South African mission, who did not want to be named, denied this.
The member said that after ”weighing the priorities” South Africa had decided that to become a signatory would require effort better utilised elsewhere.
”It is about time and capacity. To be at the forefront is difficult. But that does not mean we don’t support it, we just didn’t put our names to it,” the official told the Mail & Guardian.
Asked why South Africa had not endorsed the declaration, South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Khumalo, said: ”Everyone wants us to be at the forefront of everything and we can’t do that.”
In a statement released on Thursday Khumalo said: ”South Africa supported the statement, but was not a signatory to it.” He declined to elaborate.