UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. General Assembly unanimously elected Uganda‘s Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa to be its next president on Wednesday amid controversy over his country’s anti-gay laws and allegations that he abused his office and accepted bribes from foreign companies.
The largely ceremonial but prestigious job of president rotates annually by region. Kutesa will take over from current president John Ashe of Antigua at the start of the 69th session of the General Assembly in September.
Critics said Kutsea didn’t deserve the job, pointing to Uganda’s aggressive law that allows jail terms of up to life for those convicted of engaging in gay sex which rights activists say he supported.
“I have never been found corrupt,” Kutesa told reporters immediately after the election. “I’m not homophobic, and I believe that I’m (the right) person to lead this organization for the next session.”
Two Democratic senators from New York criticize d Kutesa’s appointment, and more than 9,000 people signed an online petition urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. member states to block him from taking up the post. It cites his implication in corruption scandals at home and his alleged role in the enactment of the anti-gay law.
A wealthy businessman and longtime member of parliament, Kutesa is widely seen by critics to have benefited from his close ties with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, an increasingly authoritarian leader who has held power for nearly three decades. Kutesa’s daughter is married to Museveni’s son.
Kutesa, 65, was ousted as a junior investment minister by Ugandan lawmakers over charges he abused his office. Since 1999, he has been implicated in at least two more scandals including bribery allegations involving foreign companies seeking oil contracts in Uganda.
As General Assembly president, he said he will focus on achieving U.N. anti-poverty goals by 2015, formulating a new set of goals for 2030, tackling climate change which he called “one of the defining global challenges of our time,” and promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment.
While there was no direct criticism of Kutesa in speeches after his election, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he will be called on to strengthen the U.N.’s efforts “to end all forms of discrimination and ensure that each and every member of the human family can enjoy their fundamental human rights.”
Britain‘s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of Western nations at the U.N., also called on Kutesa “to advance the protection, promotion and realization of human rights for all people without discrimination or distinction of any kind or for any reason.”
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said in a statement that the General Assembly and its president must urgently focus on human rights “at a time when girls are attacked by radical extremists for asserting their right to a n 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.”
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