GENEVA (Reuters) - The top U.N. human rights body declared Friday there should be no discrimination or violence against people based on their sexual orientation, a vote Western countries called historic but Islamic states firmly 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. Libya's membership in the 47-member Geneva forum was suspended in March.
"All over the world, people face human rights abuses and violations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including torture, rape, criminal sanctions, and killing," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement issued in Washington.
"Today's landmark resolution affirms that human rights are universal," she said, calling it a "historic moment."
The White House later praised the vote as a "significant milestone in the long struggle for equality," and said: "The United States stands proudly with those nations that are standing up to intolerance, discrimination and homophobia."
Britain, France joined the United States in voting in favor, while Russia voted against and China abstained, results showed.
South African Ambassador Jerry Matthews Matjila said the aim was for a dialogue on discrimination and violence meted out to those "whose only crime seems to be their choice in life."
But delegations from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Bangladesh took the floor to reject the text in a heated debate held on the last day of the council's three-week session.
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.
The resolution calls on the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to draw up the first U.N. report on challenges faced by gay people worldwide.
Her report, due by December, should document discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Laura MacInnis in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich