Will The U.N. General Assembly Appoint This Antigay Ugandan as Its President?

By Thom Senzee

Originally published on Advocate.com June 09 2014 7:28 PM ET

The United Nations General Assembly is expected to elect Uganda's foreign minister as its next president Wednesday, despite a growing chorus of international voices urging the U.N. to reject the appointment.

The nominee, Sam Kutesa, was not only an outspoken defender of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act, but has also said that homosexuality is a Western plot, and that the draconian measure, which imposes lifetime prison sentences for many instances of same-sex relations, is a reasonable law because "the majority of Africans abhor this practice," according to The Guardian.

"Human Rights First believes that Mr. Kutesa is a poor choice for this position, given his connections to laws and practices that violate human rights, particularly the most recent antigay law in Uganda," says Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel at Washington D.C.-based Human Rights First. "We are disappointed that he would be chosen when there are many other Africans who stand for fairness and equality who might have been chosen."

There has been no U.S. statement of opposition to Kutesa's nomination as the U.N. General Assembly’s next president. Instead, the State Department is deferring to the Africa Group's right to choose whomever it pleases. The State Department notes that the selection of Kutesa as president of the General Assembly follows a system of regional rotation. Whoever is named to the largely ceremonial position is chosen by members of the regional group, meaning the United States doesn't play a direct role during that phase of the selection. In May of last year, the African Union’s Executive Council unanimously nominated Kutesa as its candidate.

The General Assembly president serves a one-year team, chairing "all meetings of the U.N.'s general assembly, and [playing] host to world leaders," according to U.K. LGBT site PinkNews. The election won't include a formal vote, as the appointment is largely considered predetermined, but will take place at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. 

Some activists say U.S. security interests in central and eastern Africa have American politicians trying to have it both ways, at once placating LGBT rights advocates with rhetoric tuned for Western ears while effectively maintaining the status quo in the nation's relationship with Uganda. The State Department has indicated more action to come.

"While we continue to urge the Ugandan government to repeal this abhorrent law and commit itself to protect the universal human rights of its citizens, the United States continues to work globally to promote and protect the human rights of all persons, including LGBT persons," a State Department official tells The Advocate

Despite the generally foregone conclusion of Kutesa's ascension to president, some LGBT activists are fighting back and raising awareness about Kutesa, who now serves as Uganda's foreign minister even after being hounded out of the same position in 2011 following a wide-reaching corruption scandal.

A Change.org petition asking U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. member nations to oppose Kutesa's election and deny any U.S. visa for the politician has already garnered more than 11,000 signatures. The activist on behalf of LGBT and other oppressed minorities, Ugandan expatriate, and publisher of Black Star News behind the petition is Milton Allimadi, who hopes a last-minute surge in awareness can pressure the U.S. officials into rejecting Kutesa's impending presidency. A rival petition launched last week at Change.org supporting Kutesa had just over 150 signatures as of this writing.

"The election Wednesday is really a formality," Allimadi (pictured right) tells The Advocate. "The General Assembly will likely defer to the choice of the African Union, which has regrettably elected Minister of Foreign Affairs Sam Kutesa to represent Africa in the Office of President of the General Assembly for the coming term." 

Allimadi, who was born in Uganda and now lives in New York, is disappointed that African members of the General Assembly chose a Ugandan, because the country has taken a decisive turn toward a brutally repressive homophobic society, imposing lifetime prison sentences for anyone convicted of "aggravated homosexuality," which includes repeated instances of same-sex sexual contact between consenting adults. Organizations, individuals, and even landlords who provide basic shelter and support to known LGBT people are liable to spend seven years in jail under the country's Anti-Homosexuality Act.

The fact that the Ugandan chosen by the African Union was an outspoken supporter of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in his role as minister of foreign affairs only adds insult to injury, Allimadi says.

"I think the African Union can do better than Kutesa," he says. "They should go back to the drawing board."

Human Rights First agreed with Allimadi's assessment, offering the African Union a list of suggested candidates for president of the U.N. General Assembly it hopes will be considered if the delegation withdraws its current nominee.

"The withdrawal of Kutesa at the last minute is probably not likely," Allimadi acknowledges. "But anything is possible. There's even a remote possibility that the General Assembly won't approve Kutesa when the members are asked to state their votes on Wednesday.”

Critics say the February enactment of  Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act is not the only reason the U.S. and other U.N. member nations should oppose Kutesa's nomination. Kutesa has an ongoing record of alleged corruption, and participation in and approval of massacres and plunder in neighboring countries, notes The Daily Beast.

Uganda was found liable by the International Court of Justice, also know as the World Court, for actions it took in the Democratic Republic of Congo during years of conflict there. But the Ugandan government has yet to pay any of the billions of dollars in restitution it was ordered by ICJ to make to the Congo.

"There are so many reasons why this man is not fit to be president of the General Assembly and why Uganda should not be the symbol of the [U.N. General Assemby] at this moment," says Allimadi. 

Kutesa, who is often described as one of Uganda's wealthiest people, has a daughter who is married to the son of the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, who signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law after being "convinced" that homosexuality was not innate by a three-page so-called scientific report compiled by members of the president's own party in Parliament. 

For his part, Kutesa has frequently aligned himself closely with the military president, who has ruled Uganda since 1986. Museveni is up for reelection in 2016.

Just three years ago, Museveni’s in-law and foreign minister Kutesa resigned the cabinet post he now holds again amid an investigation of questionable business dealings, alleged bribery and corruption. 

Prior to that, in the late 1990s, the Ugandan Parliament censured Kutesa for separate allegations of corruption. At the time, he was a junior finance minister, according to Allimadi, as well as chairman of an air transport and logistics company called Enhas.

Allimadi contends that Enhas was unlawfully formed through Kutesa's "cannibalization" of Uganda’s now-defunct national airline. However, history describes a troubled Uganda Airlines that had been deeply mired in debt for several years prior to Kutesa’s purchasing of some of its assets in Entebbe.

Nevertheless, controversy continues to hover over Kutesa’s affiliation with Enhas, which is based in Entebbe. Now, however, that controversy threatens to reach into the General Assembly.

Allimadi’s Black Star News reported Saturday that U.N. officials are looking into whether the world body has contracts with Enhas that might pose a conflict of interest with Kutesa as president of the general assembly.

The Advocate made multiple attempts to obtain direct comment from the Ugandan foreign minister. Despite assurances from an aide to Kutesa that he would return our calls, no response ever came.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration promises that it will soon tee up action that follows statements condemning Uganda's state-sanctioned homophobia. U.S. officials announced in March that roughly $10 million in foreign aid slated to go to Uganda's Inter-Religious Council and other government groups would be rerouted to nongovernmental agencies that did not support the antigay law, but critics — including the Human Rights Campaign — note that the amount constitutes only a tiny portion of the estimated $700 million in U.S. aid that goes to Uganda each year. 

Late last week, HRC urged the Obama administration to make good its promises of "concrete" action against Uganda, to include tough sanctions against the Museveni government in Kampala for enacting its draconian antigay law.

But as the rhetoric continues, activist groups on the ground in Uganda report an exponential increase in the daily instances of violence, harassment, and discrimination against LGBT Ugandans. LGBT organization Sexual Minorities Uganda recently reported a tenfold increase in violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Ugandans since the law was passed by the Ugandan Parliament in December.

Such reports underscore a need for immediate U.S. action to put pressure on Uganda both at the U.N. and on the continent itself, say human rights and LGBT groups.

"We are in agreement with Human Rights Campaign and a number of other partner organizations that we are overdue for an update on exactly what steps the United States is taking in response to the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda," Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord tells The Advocate. "We believe this is a pivotal moment for the United States to show that there will be consequences when countries with whom we have relationships take such shocking and unnecessary actions."

Contributor: 
Thom Senzee