UNITED NATIONS — The General Assembly objected to a policy change Thursday that allows same-sex partners of U.N. staffers to receive family benefits, and asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan to review it.
Representatives of dozens of Islamic and African nations, as well as the Vatican, led the revolt against Annan's recent directive to offer medical, pension and other benefits for same-sex partners whose home governments have recognized their domestic partnerships. The new policy took effect Feb. 1.
Under most U.N. regulations, marriage has been defined as a union between a man and a woman -- or between a man and up to four women for countries where polygamy is legal. U.N. legal experts relied in part on that definition to include gay and lesbian staffers' partners. But many diplomats complained that Annan was pushing a definition most countries didn't accept.
Iranian deputy representative Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi argued that the General Assembly -- not Annan alone -- should decide what constitutes a family. Saudi Arabian Ambassador Fawzi Shobokshi said that same-sex marriage was a taboo in all religions, and a "great evil" that threatened family unity.
Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican observer, echoed the arguments. "Our stand was not against anybody. It was in favor of ensuring that the institutions of marriage and family not be subverted," he said.
U.N. officials said that in order to avoid confrontation with the larger number of nations that don't recognize same-sex partnerships, they limited the policy to nationals whose countries provide similar benefits. Only the Netherlands and Belgium extend the same rights and benefits to heterosexual and homosexual couples. About a dozen other nations offer varying degrees of recognition to same-sex partnerships.
The effect of the assembly's action goes beyond the dispute over definitions and benefits, challenging the secretary-general's authority to make policy for the world body. That makes Annan's office even more reluctant to alter its position.
Rosemary McCreery, assistant secretary-general for human resources, said after the vote that Annan would reissue the benefits plan after reviewing the assembly members' concerns, but would not change the policy's substance. Officials are looking for ways to modify the language in a way that satisfies some of its critics.
"The policy the secretary-general announced is the policy," Annan spokesman Farhan Haq said. "At the same time, we are sensitive to concerns of member states."