The new policy, headed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, came into effect on 26 June, and will affect approximately 43,000 UN employees worldwide.
Previously, the intergovernmental organisation only recognised the unions of staff members who are citizens of countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
But couples married in any country where same-sex unions are lawful will now be able to enjoy UN staff benefits, including: health insurance coverage, and the opportunity to accompany their partner during home leave.
However, employees of UN agencies, including UNICEF and the UNESCO cultural body, are not affected by the change, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed.
UN-Globe, a group representing LGBT staffers at the UN, had been pushing for the measure since 1997. It welcomed Monday’s announcement as a massive step forward.
“Too many of us have suffered under the previous policy. Too many of us have been unable to secure, for example, residency visas and health benefits for our spouses because of a discriminatory policy that would refuse to recognize our legal partners,” the group’s president, Hyung Hak Nam, said in a statement.
“Let us just enjoy this moment, this huge victory.”
Anna Guerraggio, an Italian citizen who works for the UN in New York, told reporters that the announcement means she and her partner of five years, Flaminia De Agostini, need no longer worry about visa or immigration issues. Waiting for her girlfriend to hear whether she got a job with a visa is also a thing of the past.
“If she doesn’t get the job, then we get married and she benefits from my visa,” Guerraggio said in a telephone interview from Italy, where same-sex marriage is not recognised.
Guerraggio went on to praise the UN secretary general, for his “bold” moves to promote LGBT rights.
“For a couple of years, the secretary-general has boldly spoken about equality for all people, and now he was bold enough to do it,” Guerraggio said. “He is defending his own employees, and we appreciated that.”
During his tenure at head of the organisation, Ban has been an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights – notably just before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, when he condemned attacks and discrimination against homosexuals.
The speech came at a time when activists and protesters had stepped up their campaign against Russia’s law restricting gay rights activities.
According to the Pew Research Center, same-sex marriage is legal in 18 countries, plus parts of the US and Mexico. But prejudice remains deep in many countries. An extreme case is Uganda, which in February passed a law making gay sex punishable by a life sentence.