Why the UN General Assembly Just Selected Uganda’s Anti-Gay Foreign Minister as its President

The General Assembly has selected Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa to be its next president. He was unopposed. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is his retrograde views on homosexuality and human rights, which included support for Uganda’s disastrous anti-gay law.  He’s also been dogged by corruption charges.

So why would the General Assembly (which is the UN’s ultimate governing body, made up of all its member states) select such a person to hold its top post? The answer has very little to do with Sam Kutesa and very much to do with the way UN member states make big decisions at the United Nations.

Many posts in the UN system are guided by the principal of equitable geographic representation, meaning that a set number of seats on any given body are set aside for a set number of countries from each region. Or, in the case of the position of the President of the General Assembly, the position simply rotates between regions. So, one year the “PGA” is from Latin America, the next year from Asia, the next year from western Europe, etc. (You could actually make the argument that human rights-loving Europe is over-represented because its broken down to two different groups: western and eastern Europe, but that’s a question for another time!)

In any case, 2014 was designated as Africa’s year. And African countries decided internally that it was Uganda’s turn to hold this post. In May 2013 they selected Sam Kutesa to be their nominee. Since he was the only nominee, he was assured to be elected President the General Assembly. His term starts at the UN Summit this coming September and lasts for one year.

The post of PGA is largely ceremonial. It does not have any real power, but it does come with some responsibilities. This includes helping to coordinate actives at the General Assembly and helping to set agendas and manage protocol. The PGA can’t block anything and he has no executive power. It’s basically a ceremonial secretary.

That said, if the PGA happens to be a skilled diplomat who is serving during times of contentious debate he or she can certainly have an impact on the the debate’s outcome. In September 2005, for example, the UN General Assembly negotiated the most substantial UN reforms in decades. The two PGAs who oversaw this process were Jan Eliasson of Sweden and then Jean Ping of Gabon, two exceptionally skilled diplomats (the former is currently the Deputy Secretary General, the latter went on to serve as the head of the African Union). When the process stalled, they basically took over the negotiations and fathered the passage of a sweeping set of UN reforms.

Sam Kutesa seems to be a less than savory figure who has little political capitol in many countries that matter. He certainly does not have the weight of Ping or Eliasson, so we can probably expect him to play a muted role. His views on homosexuality and support of Uganda’s anti-gay law also puts him at odds with Ban Ki Moon, who has made LGBT rights a central plank of his tenure as Secretary General.

Still, forthrightly opposing Kutesa when he was the consensus candidate of African countries is politically very, very dicey. Countries that do so risk alienating African countries, which make up the single largest voting bloc at the General Assembly. From an African perspective, western countries meddling in their internal decision-making has the stench of colonialism.

Because of this dynamic, don’t expect much outright opposition to Kutesa even from ardently pro-LGBT diplomats at the UN. For example, try to find where Samantha Power, in her statement released right after the selection, says the USA opposes Kutesa’s candidacy.

It is fitting that it is Africa’s turn to nominate a President for the upcoming 69th General Assembly session in a year in which the Assembly will make important decisions on such critical issues to the region — and the world — as crafting a transformative new development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals.

The Africa Group nominated Ugandan Foreign Minister Mr. Sam Kutesa as its candidate in May 2013, and today the General Assembly elected Mr. Kutesa to take up the presidency when the 69th General Assembly gets underway in September.

The UN Charter places respect for human rights and dignity at its core, and it is the job of the General Assembly — and its President — to uphold these principles. At a time when girls are attacked by radical extremists for asserting their right to an education; representatives of civil society are harassed and even imprisoned for their work; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are endangered for who they are, including by discriminatory laws, the work of the United Nations to advance equality, justice, and dignity for all could not be more urgent. In the face of these challenges, all of us working in and at the United Nations should recommit to vigorously defending these core principles.

The bottom line is that the optics of this presidency are problematic, and that it’s perhaps a punch in the gut to LGBT activists around the world. But Kutesa will not make a big difference one way or the other to how the UN operates.  And if countries want to avoid this kind of situation in the future, perhaps they ought to consider revisiting how the PGA is selected.