Leave it to the United Nations to find the best man for a job.
As of June 11, the next president of the U.N. General Assembly will be Sam Kutesa, the foreign minister of Uganda—who just happens to have a 20-year record of corruption, and a visceral dislike of gays. What’s not to love?
Kutesa is the right-hand man of Uganda’s military ruler, Gen. Yoweri Museveni. His last few years have been a revolving door of corruption, scandal, resignation, and reinstatement. In 2011, for example, he resigned for taking bribes from a British oil company—and at the same time using public money to renovate a hotel he owned. But he was reinstated shortly thereafter.
That’s just the most recent example. Kutesa was censured in 1999 for corruption. He was implicated in a 2007 scandal over $150 million in missing public money. (The case was dismissed on a technicality.) And he was named in a leaked 2009 diplomatic cable as being one of the inner circle of Uganda’s corrupt ministers, too close to Museveni to be held accountable for his crimes.
And then there is Kutesa’s perspective on homosexuality. Kutesa has been a strong supporter of Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law—which has led to a tenfold increase in anti-LGBT violence, according to a new study. As foreign minister, he has defended it many times in the Western media. And why should sex between consenting adults result in life imprisonment? “The majority of Africans abhor this practice,” he said.
It’s this last aspect of Kutesa’s resume that has attracted the attention of two U.S. Senators, New York’s Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Said Gillibrand, “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 U.N. General Assembly.”
To be sure, the presidential role is entirely ceremonial: chairing meetings, shaking hands. It is a 12-month position, which customarily rotates among regions of the world, and 2014-15 is Africa’s turn. Indeed, the position is so meaningless that a real vote for it isn’t even held. Normally, the relevant regional body—in this case, the African Union—nominates a candidate who is then rubber-stamped by a “vote of acclimation” with no opposition.
But this year may be different. Secretary of State John Kerry has already gone on record as opposing Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, stating that it violates the very humanitarian values the U.N. is supposed to represent. A change.org petition started by New York-based Ugandan activist Milton Allimadi, who edits the independent African news site Black Star News, now has over 5,000 signatures. And activists in Europe have also begun to take notice and demand Kutesa’s withdrawal.
The geopolitics could get tricky, however. Kutesa, Museveni, and other African leaders of their ilk have long positioned themselves as anti-Western—and justified their anti-gay policies in terms of fighting Western imperialism. For American and European leaders to block Kutesa on the basis of the anti-homosexuality law would feed into exactly that narrative. Potentially, it could endanger LGBT people in Africa still further, and add fuel to the fire of anti-homosexuality campaigns elsewhere in the continent.
In other words, this is a no-win situation. Either a homophobe presides over the U.N. General Assembly, or the homophobe is proven right that LGBT equality is all a Western plot.
Maybe Gillibrand, Schumer, and by extension Kerry, should take a cue from Allimadi, the grassroots activist. His petition does mention the anti-homosexuality law, of course, but spends much more time detailing Kutesa’s corruption, and his complicity in Uganda’s militarism and repression.
Of course, Museveni and Kutesa will spin this story however they want. But targeting Kutesa for massive corruption and international human rights violations may be safer—and more reflective of the harm he has done—than making him the enemy of the gays. The worst-case scenario would be Kutesa becoming the next Brendan Eich.
The best-case scenario would be an African-led battle against the use of homophobia as a political wedge. Traditional African homosexualities have existed for centuries, and are part of many pre-colonial African cultures; it is homophobia—not homosexuality—that is the Western import. And contemporary figures like Cameron Modisane of South Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina of Kenya, and Kapya Kaoma of Zambia have courageously tried to tell these truths, often at great personal cost. (It is no coincidence that Kaoma and Wainaina are now based in the U.S.)
But American support for these and similar voices has, so far, been extremely limited. And unfortunately, non-African LGBT activists can unwittingly play into the hands of African homophobes. Kutesa’s nomination by the African Union is a symptom of this larger problem. Until the West finds a way out of the LGBT=Western equation, it will be stuck in no-win situations like this one.
Meanwhile, unless something radical happens in the next week, get ready for General Assembly President Sam Kutesa, valiantly protecting human rights with every pound of the gavel—or obliterating them.