UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama will meet with Sam Kutesa, the controversial Ugandan diplomat serving as president of the United Nations General Assembly, on Wednesday in a move that is sure to frustrate rights activists who say Kutesa’s support for virulently anti-gay legislation makes him unfit to lead the world’s parliament.
"There are real concerns about Sam Kutesa’s commitment to the values embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," said Maria Burnett, a senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, referring to the landmark rights document adopted by the U.N. General Assembly after World War II. "His human-rights credentials are fundamentally undermined by his defense of Uganda’s discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Law as well as other concerns."
Signed into law in February by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the harsh anti-gay legislation imposed a penalty of life in prison for "aggravated homosexuality," a vague charge that could conceivably have applied to any gay individual who has had sex more than once. It also made it a crime not to report the activities of sexual minorities, effectively requiring Ugandans to spy on one another.
As Museveni’s foreign minister, Kutesa defended the law as consistent with the values of most Ugandans. "We shall not accept promotion and exhibition [of homosexuality]," he told the Guardian newspaper in May, "because we think that is wrong for our young people and it offends our culture."
A court later struck down the anti-gay law on technical grounds, but homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda under statutes dating back to the British colonial period. Violence against sexual minorities, moreover, has surged in recent months, as debate over the bill has stirred public emotions in the deeply conservative country. Across Africa, where homosexuality is outlawed in 38 out of 54 countries, gay people face increasing levels of persecution, in part because politicians, religious leaders, and tabloids have found them useful targets.
Kutesa’s election as General Assembly president back in June was not without controversy. A petition on change.org calling on the Obama administration to revoke the Ugandan diplomat’s U.S. visa, thereby blocking him from traveling to New York for the General Assembly, received more than 15,000 online signatures. U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, both Democrats from New York, also spoke out forcefully against Kutesa’s election.
"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," Gillibrand said in June. Schumer called on the United Nations to "review Mr. Kutesa’s participation in, and views on" Uganda’s homophobic legislation, which he said contradicted the U.N. charter.
A spokesperson for Kutesa at the office of the president of the General Assembly told Foreign Policy that Kutesa "will not speak on these matters in his personal or national capacity." She added: "While recognizing that there is no consensus among the U.N. membership on this important matter, the president supports all advances the family of nations makes in favor of human rights."
Obama’s meeting with Kutesa, a nicety that is dictated by U.N. protocol, is scheduled to take place in New York on Wednesday afternoon, prior to a U.N. Security Council summit on foreign terrorists that the U.S. president will chair.
Obama has voiced concerns about Uganda’s record on gay rights in the past — and the United States cut some assistance the East African country over the homophobic law in June — but few experts expect him to raise the issue with Kutesa.
"The U.S. has bigger fish to fry at the U.N. this year, including the fight against the Islamic State and Ebola," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. He added that Obama is unlikely to see this as a moment for "a big moral argument."
When asked about the president’s planned talking points for his meeting with Kutesa, an administration official told Foreign Policy, "We expect their conversation will center on matters pertaining to the U.N."
As a key Western partner in the fight against the militant Islamist group al-Shabab, Uganda has been a top African recipient of aid from Washington. U.S. forces have also deployed alongside Ugandan troops in the hunt for brutal warlord Joseph Kony.
Obama’s meeting with Kutesa comes less than two weeks after federal immigration officials recommended that the United States grant asylum to prominent Ugandan gay rights activist John Abdallah Wambere, who fled Uganda three days before Museveni signed the anti-gay legislation into law. Wambere has been repeatedly attacked and threatened because of his work. His friend and fellow gay-rights activist David Kato was murdered in 2011.
"Discrimination against [sexual minorities] existed before this law was put into force earlier this year and such discrimination continues despite the constitutional court ruling the law a nullity," said Burnett. A surge in homophobic rhetoric from politicians and the "outing" of gay people by Ugandan tabloids, she added, has led to "increased insecurity and discrimination."
Kutesa is not the first controversial diplomat to head the General Assembly — or to get an audience with the U.S. president during the annual meeting in New York. In 2008, President George W. Bush met with Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, the former Nicaraguan foreign minister and firebrand Sandinista priest who presided over the 63rd session of the General Assembly.
One year later, Obama sat down with Libyan diplomat Ali Abdussalam Treki, Brockmann’s successor and the international face of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s repressive regime. (Treki, incidentally, was also no champion of gay rights, at one point calling homosexuality "not really acceptable.")
Despite the continued backsliding on gay rights in Uganda, some activists felt that this year’s meeting between the American president and the president of the General Assembly, represents an opportunity for dialogue on the rights of sexual minorities.
"We have asked for dialogue and it is happening," said prominent Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha. The meeting, he said, "would be a great opportunity to raise the issue and see Uganda’s commitment" to gay rights.