ADDIS ABABA — UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told African leaders they must respect gay rights, speaking at the opening of a summit meeting on Sunday.
"One form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity," Ban said.
"It prompted governments to treat people as second class citizens or even criminals," he added.
Homosexuality is outlawed in most African countries and discrimination against gays and lesbians is rife on the continent, with South Africa being the only country that recognises gay rights and same-sex marriage.
However, previous external criticism of restrictions imposed upon homosexuals has attracted angry responses from African leaders, who claim it is alien to their culture.
After Commonwealth leaders refused to adopt reforms to abolish homophobic laws in 41 member nations, British Prime Minister David Cameron said last year he would consider withholding aid from countries that do not recognise gay rights.
"Confronting these discriminations is a challenge, but we must not give up on the ideas of the universal declaration" of human rights, Ban told the summit.
Gay rights in Africa, most notably in Uganda, have made the news on several occasions last year.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, but a controversial bill that calls for the death penalty for certain homosexual acts was re-introduced in the Ugandan parliament late last year.
The proposed legislation envisages stiffer punishments -- including the death penalty -- for anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts for the second time as well as for gay sex where one partner is a minor or has HIV.
Gay rights activists have blamed an increase in homophobia in Uganda on evangelical preachers, some of whom are close to the regime of President Yoweri Museveni.
Ban also told leaders that they should respect democracy, noting that the Arab Spring revolutions that swept north Africa last year were "a reminder that leaders must listen to their people."
"Events proved that repression is a dead end. Police power is no match to people power seeking dignity and justice," he said.
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