UN member states are coming under fire for appointing Sam Kutesa, Uganda’s corrupt, homophobic foreign minister as the next president of the General Assembly.
It’s a scandal with no easy fix, and one that lays bare the awkward arrangements that hold the UN together.
Traditionally, the presidency of the General Assembly rotates annually between the UN’s five geographic regions. Leaders from each region decide on a representative among themselves and their choice is then rubber-stamped by the remaining member states.
Kutesa was chosen months ago by the African Union as their sole candidate and — barring unprecedented intervention — will be accepted to the post “by acclamation” on June 11. He would not begin his term until September, when the current president, John Ash of Antigua and Barbuda, finishes his.
Much of the criticism lodged against Kutesa stems from Uganda’s notorious anti-homosexuality law.
After the bill, which threatens gay couples with life in prison, was passed in February, Kutesa was quoted as saying “the majority of Africans abhor” homosexuality.
“It is outrageous that Kutesa has been nominated by the African Union. He is not a fit and proper person to hold this prestigious UN post,” said British LGBT activist Peter Tatchell.
A May report released by Sexual Minorities Uganda found a 750 percent increase in attacks, including documented incidents of kidnapping and torture, on the country’s LGBT community since the start of 2014.
"It would be disturbing to see the foreign minister of a country that passed an unjust, harsh and discriminatory law based on sexual orientation preside over the UN general assembly,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told Black Star News.
The state’s other Senator, Chuck Schumer, said Kutesa’s appointment should be reviewed by the UN.
“The UN,” however, is in this instance, its member states — the same ones that are set to approve Kutesa.
A petition that attempts to override that choice, calling for Secretary of State John Kerry to revoke Kutesa’s visa, raises the thorny question of whether the US alone should be allowed to decide who can or cannot travel to the UN.
When asked about accusations lodged in the petition, Kutesa told Radio France Internationale, “It’s a lie so I’m not bothered by that.”
The post is largely viewed as ceremonial; the president presides over and schedules meetings and hosts the annual gathering of world leaders each September.
Kutesa’s presidency, however — the UN’s 69th — will see agenda setting for UN’s next round of development goals after the current Millennial Development Goals expire in 2015.
“In the coming year, the role of the president of the GA might be slightly elevated over what it is typically is,” Mark Leon Goldberg, editor of the blog UN Dispatch, told VICE News. “I would imagine the next president of the General Assembly will play an important role in setting those agendas.”
“It’s already a complicated and politically fraught process to replace the MDGs. Anything that distracts from that is probably unhelpful.”
Corruption allegations have dogged Kutesa for years.
In 1999, the Ugandan parliament censured him and in 2011 he was forced to resign in connection with the disappearance of $150 million of government funds.
Since joining politics in the early 1980s as a member of parliament, Kutesa has grown close to Uganda President Yoweri Museveni.
Leaked cables from 2009 and 2010 show US diplomats calling Kutesa’s corruption “egregious,” and worthy of a travel ban, while acknowledging he was one of three senior Ugandan officials Museveni would be unwilling to hold accountable.
As Museveni prepared to sign the anti-homosexuality law, Western leaders and media lined up to tee off, causing a furor that contrasted sharply with decades of silence over his increasingly dictatorial rule and militarism in the region.
That disparity helped fuel the line pushed by the government that Uganda’s LGBT community was somehow backed by Western interests and that the law was in fact an affront to neo-colonialism.
In reality, the bill, which had been on the table for years, was finally passed in a cynical ploy to shore up Museveni’s waning popularity. Days before approving the anti-gay law, the president signed another that banned mini-skirts.
Had they taken the opportunity to dig a little deeper, the media would have found Museveni’s — and Kutesa’s — hand in a series of alarming armed forays.
Uganda is one of several countries to intervene in civil wars in neighboring Congo, conflicts its ruling class has profited from handsomely.
In 2002, a UN panel of experts found that an “elite network” within the Ugandan government was provoking ethnic conflict in order to extract resources from Eastern Congo.
During that time, Kutesa was serving as State Minister for Investment. In 2005, Uganda was ordered by the International Court of Justice to pay billions in reparations to the Congo, not a penny of which has been delivered.
While Kutesa was Foreign Minister, leaders of the Congolese rebel group M23, responsible for the deaths of international peacekeepers in that country, were found in 2013 to “be moving freely in Uganda.”
In May, the UN documented the use of banned cluster munitions in South Sudan, where Ugandan troops are fighting alongside government forces and providing them with crucial air support. A Human Rights Watch report suggests Uganda is the likely culprit.
Sources close to the UN tell VICE News the decision to choose Kutesa — made unanimously by the African Union’s executive committee — came in May of 2013, nearly a year before the anti-gay bill was passed.
The regional consensus process, which characterizes much of UN nominations and policy making, tends to give powerful countries in each region — of which Uganda certainly is one of in Africa — the ability to muffle smaller ones. The politics of the AU are particularly opaque and few countries wish to be seen as bucking the party line.
“The colonial legacy in Africa makes the rest of the world less inclined to tell Africa what Africa should do,” says Goldberg.
In 2012, under international pressure, Sudan did withdraw its candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, however their ascension would have required a direct vote in the General Assembly, something the presidency does not.
Kutesa is not the first controversial candidate for president to emerge from the AU’s vetting process.
Their last choice, Libya’s Ali Abdussalam Treki, who was the General Assembly president from September 2009 to September 2010, caused an uproar in 1983 for making anti-Semitic remarks while serving as Muammar Qaddafi’s representative to the UN.
“Look around New York. Who are the owners of pornographic film operations and houses?” Treki told the General Assembly at the time. “Is it not the Jews who are exploiting the American people and trying to debase them? If we succeed in eliminating that entity, we shall by the same token save the American and European peoples.”
Still, there’s a growing perception among African leaders that they are gone after simply for being the lowest hanging fruit. Finding their choice for the General Assembly presidency — one of the few decisions Africans are allowed to make on the international stage — criticized is a bitter pill to swallow.
The AU, after initially supporting the International Criminal Court, has soured on its premise upon seeing Africans make up the vast majority of indictments - all while powerful countries like the US refuse to even sign on.
That power discrepancy is no clearer than at the UN.
Russia, which this week assumed the presidency of the Security Council, also passed an anti-gay law earlier in the year.
On Tuesday, at an hour long press conference so widely attended the body heat of journalists caused some to sweat through their suits, Russia’s UN representative Vitaly Churkin kept correspondents chuckling with his self-aware but cantankerous retorts to questions on such comedic topics as blocking resolutions to ensure humanitarian access in Syria.
But Russia, nor any of the permanent members of the Security Council — in reflection of how comparatively unimportant it is — have never and will never serve as president of the General Assembly.
It’s possible that Museveni and the entire leadership of the African Union may experience a sudden change of heart.
There certainly are more respectable choices, such as Cameroon’s foreign minister Pierre Moukoko, who was early on in the running. But in lieu of a replacement, having Kutesa in New York brings him, and the cynical politics of Uganda’s ruling class closer to their harshest critics.