Tuesday, March 16, 2004

NEW YORK — Representatives of the Vatican and dozens of Islamic nations formally objected yesterday to a U.N. Secretariat decision to extend family benefits to some staffers in same-sex unions, raising the prospect of a General Assembly vote on the issue.

A number of African states also objected to the decision by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January to extend family benefits to homosexual staffers, whose domestic partnership has been recognized by their governments.

A representative of the Holy See, the Vatican’s U.N. mission, said the decision to include same-sex couples within the definition of family was contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related conventions. He rejected Mr. Annan’s explanation that the new policy was designed to respect the cultural norms in individual countries.

“I find it difficult to reconcile that statement with the proposed extension of valid family-member status to same-sex partners,” said Joseph Klee, an adviser to the Holy See. “That would contradict the basic understanding of a marriage as a union between a man and woman.”

The Vatican challenge to the U.N. legal office’s definition of family could have unintended repercussions, some observers said.

For example, the United Nations has, since the 1960s, quietly recognized as family up to four wives for Muslim men from countries that permit polygamy. U.N. officials say they do not extend additional benefits to multiple wives, merely recognize them when paying out pension or death benefits.

Iranian envoy Alireza Tootoonchian, speaking on behalf of 56 Islamic nations at a meeting of the budget-watching Fifth Committee, complained that Mr. Annan had exceeded his authority and that amendments to staff regulations were the prerogative of the General Assembly.

“The [Organization of the Islamic Conference] group is not only seriously concerned about extending the scope of the family definition for the purposes of entitlements … but also opposes the presumption that … [homosexuals] be qualified for receiving the entitlements provided for eligible family members,” he said.

The acceptance of the Muslim practice of multiple wives was one of the precedents drawn upon by U.N. legal experts when deciding whether homosexual partners could be construed as family.

The coalition against extending benefits to homosexual couples is shaping up to look very much like the religious-based group that joined against a resolution that would have allowed limited cloning for medical research.

So far, only the Netherlands and Belgium extend the same rights and recognition to homosexual and heterosexual couples. A dozen other nations, mostly in northern Europe, recognize homosexual unions to varying degrees.

Irish envoy Margaret Stanley, speaking on behalf of the European Union and a dozen associated countries, welcomed the Jan. 28 directive and said the decision was within the secretary-general’s prerogative.

In Canada, certain provinces recognize homosexual unions, and Ottawa has indicated that it will approve family benefits for staffers from those provinces. The United States, where homosexual “marriages” have been ruled legal in Massachusetts, still is grappling with the issue.

“We are still studying it,” a U.S. envoy said yesterday.

The United Nations confirms that a “small number” of staff members already have begun to apply for additional benefits. U.N. officials say only a fraction of homosexual staff members worldwide are eligible for the bonuses and allowances extended to heterosexual married couples and stress that the fiscal cost to the organization will be negligible.

Marie Okabe, a spokeswoman for Mr. Annan, had no response to yesterday’s meeting of the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly, which handles administrative and budgetary questions. She said the Secretariat would submit written answers to some of the questions raised yesterday morning.

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