• Controversy Stirs Over Sam Kutesa, Candidate for UN General Assembly President

    by  • June 2, 2014 • Africa, General Assembly • 
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    Milton Allimadi wants Sam Kutesa, Uganda’s foreign minister, not to become the next president of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, starting in September, when its annual meeting begins with heads of state attending worldwide, including in past years President Barack Obama.

    Allimadi, who was born in Uganda and is the publisher and editor of Black Star News, based in New York, has generated online noise through a petition he posted on Change.org to send to John Kerry, the United States secretary of state, and to the UN’s 193 member states to deny or revoke a visa for Kutesa, who is slated to become the next General Assembly president through a formal vote on June 11. He is to replace John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda.

    The term of a General Assembly president is one year, starting with the opening of a new assembly session in September. (This year’s opening debate starts on Sept. 23.) For the most part it is a ceremonial position, involving presiding over meetings at the UN and global travel. The body, made up of all UN member states, can pass resolutions, but they are not binding and therefore more symbolic rather than part of international law.

    Sam Kutesa

    Sam Kutesa, left, Uganda’s foreign minister, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in April 2014, after Uganda passed a harsh antigay law. Kutesa is meant to become the next UN General Assembly president.

    Each year, a new person — rarely a woman — is chosen by geographic rotation, and it was Africa’s turn to take the helm at the next session. Kutesa was endorsed by the continent’s most powerful body, the African Union. The Nonaligned Movement, a body of 120 member states that is not allied with traditional Western-leaning international organs, has also backed Kutesa, as has the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a regional group.

    Yet even some American senators, like Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats of New York, have taken issue with the candidacy of Kutesa, who is also a Uganda Parliament member.

    Why the fuss? Kutesa is a close associate and at one time was a possible successor to President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who has been a reliable ally of the United States despite his harsh antigay policies at home and aggressive actions regarding neighboring countries, such as sending troops to South Sudan to back the government’s fight against rebels in a conflict that ignited in mid-December 2013 and continues despite cease-fires.

    It is Kutesa’s association with Museveni that has provoked the Allimadi petition. Museveni signed a controversial antigay law in February that further toughened the illegality of homosexuality in Uganda, and many democratic countries reacted negatively to the new measure.

    In May, Senator Schumer sent a statement to Black Star News to provide a comment for the publication’s article on Kutesa’s candidacy.

    “I am deeply concerned by the homophobic legislation recently passed by the Ugandan parliament and signed into law by its president,” the Schumer statement said. “The United Nations charter clearly promotes respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion — and Uganda, right now, clearly does not. That’s why the UN should review Mr. Kutesa’s participation in, and views on, such legislation. As a member of Ugandan President Museveni’s cabinet,  Mr. Kutesa’s views must be known and explained, as this law is in contradiction to the UN charter and denies equality for members of the LGBT community.”

    At the UN, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said on June 2 that the domain of the presidential election of the General Assembly resides with that body, yet he added that Ban continued to back the full rights of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community. Ban had also urged Ugandan authorities to revise or repeal Uganda’s antigay law immediately after it was passed last winter, saying that it violated basic human rights and endangers the LGBT people in the country.

    The Guardian in London has also reported on the Kutesa controversy.

    The countries that have denounced Uganda’s new antigay law and mainstream media outlets took umbrage recently when a Ugandan court sentenced a nurse to three years in jail after finding her guilty of criminal negligence for allegedly trying to infect her patient with HIV. The sentencing stoked more outrage over Uganda’s laws on anything potentially related to homosexuality.

    In 2011, Kutesa was accused in a Parliamentary investigation of receiving bribes as kickbacks from an Irish oil firm, Tullow Oil. Despite calls for him to resign with others who were accused, the proceedings were blocked.

    Allimadi’s petition, signed by 5,537 people so far, follows on a prominent visa denial relevant to the UN. In April, the US denied a visa to an Iranian diplomat, Hamid Aboutalebi, who was meant to become the ambassador to the UN. Aboutalebi once worked as a translator for the revolutionaries who took over the US embassy in Teheran in 1979, actions that some members of the US Congress found repugnant. His posting to the UN was declared “not viable” by Congress.

    A UN General Assembly committee soon took up the issue but offered no definitive response. (The US, as host country to the UN, is a member of the committee.) Iran, however, said that it had no plans to name a replacement for Aboutalebi and is said to be pursuing the matter through diplomatic back channels.

    [This article was updated to correct the date of the General Assembly presidential election.]

     

    About

    Dulcie Leimbach is a fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY and an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention against Corruption. From 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director at the United Nations Association of the USA, where she edited its flagship magazine, The InterDependent, and migrated it online in 2010. She was also the senior editor of UNA's annual book, "A Global Agenda: Issues Before the UN." Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, where she edited and wrote for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review, Op-Ed and Arts & Leisure. She has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and taught news reporting at Hofstra University. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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