NEW YORK — The U.N. General Assembly Wednesday is expected to elect by acclamation the foreign minister of Uganda as president of its 69th session.
Sam Kutesa has been Uganda's foreign minister on and off since 2005, under long-time president Yoweri Museveni. He most recently garnered international attention for defending the Ugandan government’s harsh anti-homosexuality law that the president signed in February.
In the past, Kutesa has survived political censure by the Ugandan parliament following a corruption scandal, though no formal charges were brought against him.
However, questions have been raised about a company he once chaired and is believed to still own shares in, Entebbe Handling Services, or ENHAS, which has contracts with at least one U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa.
A U.N. spokesperson said the organization is trying to ascertain its current relationship with ENHAS, and whether it presents a conflict of interest.
According to the U.N.’s procurement website, the company has been a registered vendor with it since June 2006.
Calls to revoke Kutesa's US visa
Kutesa’s candidacy has inspired a petition on Change.org, a website that hosts public petitions, garnering more than 11,000 signatures.
Milton Allimadi, editor and publisher of the Black Star News website, started the petition, which calls on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revoke Kutesa’s visa so he cannot come to New York.
“It is one of the quickest ways to stop Mr. Kutesa from becoming the president of the U.N. General Assembly," Allimadi said. "I think certainly the recent precedent was when the U.S. decided to not provide a visa for the Iranian-designated new Permanent Representative to the United Nations.”
In that case, the Iranian diplomat had been implicated in the 1979 hostile takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis. The United States rarely invokes its right as host country to withhold a diplomat’s visa.
US, UN keep distance
Washington has made no move to block Kutesa’s entry. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said recently that the choice of the Ugandan to preside over the General Assembly is up to member states, specifically the African regional group whose turn it is this year to put forth a candidate.
“Members of regional groups are the ones who select the leader," Harf said. "So in terms of being part of the selection process we, of course, we're not. No matter who is president of the General Assembly, we will continue standing up, defending LGBT [gay] rights at the U.N.”
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric echoed the sentiment, noting that the president of the General Assembly is not a U.N. staff position.
“The president of the General Assembly is chosen by the member states," Dujarric said. "It is entirely a decision of the General Assembly. It is not the secretary-general’s decision. He has no input into that process.”
Kutesa not first controversial candidate
Kutesa would not be the first controversial candidate to lead the General Assembly. During his assembly presidency, in January 2013, former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic outraged Bosnian groups and some member states after he had a song played during a U.N. event that was associated with massacres during the Balkan wars.
In 2008, Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, a Catholic priest and former foreign minister under Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista government, headed the body and attracted criticism for some of his statements, particularly about the U.S. and Israel.
Allimadi says Kutesa is not the best candidate Africa has to offer and urged him to withdraw his candidacy.
“The right thing to do would be for Mr. Kutesa to just bow out and the African continent would still have the opportunity to have another candidate take this position," he said. "Africa has many stellar potential candidates.”
Barring that unlikely outcome, Kutesa will be proclaimed president of the 69th session of the General Assembly on Wednesday and take up his duties in September.