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Anti-Gay UN Assembly President: An Unnecessary Obstacle

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UGANDA UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY
DON EMMERT via Getty Images

Whatever attributes Uganda's Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa may have, his election to the presidency of the 193-member UN General Assembly is overshadowed by his country's draconian legislation used to hunt down, isolate and jail homosexuals.

By extension, the world body is besmirched despite statements in favor of gay rights by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Human Rights Council.

One envoy said this week that many would be watching resolutions in the General Assembly through the lens of gay rights. But the selection of Kutesa also showed the long road ahead for liberal nations and the gay community in convincing the world about the rights of homosexuals.

Sam Kahamba Kutesa was elected by acclamation without a vote on June 11 after being nominated by the African group of nations, a U.N. caucus whose turn it was to choose the Assembly president to succeed John W. Ashe, the ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda. Kutesa takes office on September 14.

Uganda has company
So why was he elected? Because 37 of the 50 African nations have legislation against sexual activity by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBTs). Few laws are as brutal as those in Uganda (or in Nigeria) but they are on the books anyway. (See chart)

In the speeches welcoming his election, only Britain, representing the Western European and Others Group, mentioned the controversy. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the General Assembly's new agenda should "advance the protection, promotion and realization of human rights for all people, without discrimination or distinction of any kind or for any reason."

In a written statement, US Ambassador Samantha Power said that since "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."

The General Assembly presidential post is not just ceremonial. Kutesa will chair all important sessions and have a bully pulpit. He can influence discussions in a plenary session as well as set up side events. In his speech to the Assembly, Kutesa pledged to promote women's rights and work for programs to eradicate poverty and combat climate change.

Keep it private
Kutesa, a lawyer, parliamentarian, and former finance minister, spoke to the press briefly. Almost all queries centered on his country's anti-homosexual campaign.

He said his views on homosexuality should not be the issue because "it is the law." He said he had no problem with homosexuals "as long as they respect the privacy."

Kutesa also was censured in 1999 for corruption and implicated in a 2007 scandal over $150 million in missing public money. He was never held accountable and stressed to reporters that he had never been "found corrupt." But he said he was "suspending my interests in all my businesses."

Sen. Schumer misinformed
Asked about the vocal opposition from US Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer of New York, he said he respected Schumer but that the senator was "not very informed."

The Ugandan legislation is not just about promoting homosexuality; it is about being gay. Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, strengthened the country's anti-homosexuality act in February that stemmed from British colonial times. It authorizes life sentences for gay couples, seven year sentences to those helping gays avoid detection and five years in jail for promoting homosexuality.

Since the law was signed, Human Rights Watch reported that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people in Uganda have reported arbitrary arrests, police abuse, extortion, loss of employment, evictions, homelessness and a denial of essential health services.

Bankruptcy of ideas
Not all African figures were silent. Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, said: "What two consenting adults do is really not a matter for the law." And James Tengatenga, the former Anglican Bishop of Southern Malawi, said: "When you run out of ideas, you have to find a common enemy. "

Contrary to sterotype, Latin America has also abandoned previous stands on homosexuality, which is only criminalized in Belize and Guyana. But nine Caribbean island nations penalize same-sex acts.

No analysis would be complete without an American angle. Scott Lively, author of The Pink Swastika, blaming the Holocaust on Nazi homosexuals, is embroiled in a lawsuit. It alleges that he collaborated with key Ugandan government officials and religious leaders to persecute homosexuals. The suit is filed in Massachusetts by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Yet, a young woman working for a non-governmental group in poverty-stricken areas of northern Uganda warns against cutting foreign assistance. Sara Weschler writes that cutting aid would not make Uganda's LGBT community safer.

"It will not hurt Museveni's image at home or prompt a reconsideration of this legislation. All it will do is reinforce the local belief that the only Ugandans who matter to the outside world are gay Ugandans."