Jessica Stern in "The World Post"

President of UN General Assembly Must Promote Human Rights for All

This article appeared in the World Post:

On Tuesday, Uganda's Minister for Foreign Affairs Sam Kutesa assumes his responsibilities as President of the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Kutesa, a longtime ally of President Museveni, will hold the position for one year -- a year that holds great importance for protecting and promoting human rights for all, without distinction.

In the course of Kutesa's term, the General Assembly will celebrate its 70th anniversary. It will hold a special session in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the seminal International Conference on Population and Development, which laid out commitments for reproductive health rights, women's empowerment, gender equality, and later, indirectly, the Millennium Development Goals. The Assembly will also celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which outlined plans to address 12 critical areas of concern for women's rights, none of which has been accomplished fully.

The role of the President of the General Assembly is primarily to ensure adherence to U.N. rules and procedures, and it is true that Kutesa's election itself was a matter of procedure -- the position rotates by region annually, and this year, it was Africa's turn. Furthermore, the President of the General Assembly, by U.N. rules, serves in his or her personal capacity and represents the full U.N. membership while in office.

Even so, some commentators have raised concerns over Kutesa's close alliance with a government whose recent laws run counter to the U.N. principles of equal rights and fundamental freedoms for all. It is clear that the President of the U.N.'s largest body must adhere to U.N. Charter principles once in office -- but should he or she also be expected to do so beforehand?

Uganda's government and legislature have over recent years displayed actions ranging from the virulently homophobic (the Anti-Homosexuality Law of 2014 was signed by President Museveni despite being later overturned) and the increasingly authoritarian (a law criminalizing indecency, which regulates women's dress, was also signed in 2014) to outright oppressive (the 2011 Public Order Management Bill regulates public meetings).

And these laws seem to be contagious. We've seen the reverberations of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act play out in Nigeria, Kenya, and most recently in Gambia. It is relevant to ask: Will we also see reverberations at the General Assembly now that Kutesa has assumed office?

Among his responsibilities and powers, Kutesa, as President of the General Assembly, has the mandate to suggest themes for debates and to summarize meeting outcomes. While this may seem ceremonial to some, at the U.N., global consensus means whatever gets put down on paper and archived. Upon his election, Kutesa pledged to use his office to work for gender equality and inclusive development. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, for one, will be watching closely to see that he does.