UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told African leaders they must respect gay rights, speaking at the opening of a summit meeting 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 illegal in several African countries, and 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 they claim are close to the government of President Yoweri Museveni.