Monday June 23 2014

Why the US backed Kutesa for UN General Assembly presidency

By William G. Naggaga

Sam Kutesa was elected to the largely ceremonial post of the 69th President of the UN General Assembly since the United Nations Charter came into force on October 24, 1945. The job of the president of the United Nations General Assembly is to preside over the meetings of UNGA, with impartiality and to cause the approval of resolutions submitted to it by the various committees of the UN dealing with a myriad issues ranging from social, economic, political, scientific, humanitarian, environmental, human rights, etc. The General Assembly meets in regular sessions every year for three months from September to December, as stipulated in the UN Charter. It also meets at other times in special sessions as and when required. The President of UNGA has 21 vice presidents.

Because the post has no executive power, the election of the president of the General Assembly usually causes no excitement or raucous. It rotates between the five regions of the world. A candidate nominated by the region is elected by acclamation. Uganda should hence reflect on why Sam Kutesa’s candidacy was opposed by some people and unenthusiastically supported by Western countries.
Uganda’s stand on the gay issue, its military adventures in South Sudan, the democratic deficit in the country and Mr Kutesa’s alleged involvement in a number of corruption scandals, certainly caused some discomfort to many. While Kutesa enjoys the trappings of the new post, he should reflect on the storm his candidature caused and make every effort to assure the skeptics.

The UN General Assembly passes dozens of resolutions every year, many of which are routinely ignored by powerful member states since they are not mandatory. Foreign ministers of all 193 member states deliver annual statements to the assembly which vary little from year to year. In my days at the UN, there was a joke that the assembly “suffers from verbal diarrhoea and document constipation”. Since it is largely ‘powerless’ , it is not surprising that the United States doesn’t mind much who occupies the post of president of UNGA.

The real power in the United Nations rests with the UN Security Council, in particular the five permanent members, namely, – United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. For a resolution to be adopted it must have the concurrence of all the ‘big five’, since a veto by any of them will send the paper to the dustbin. When it comes to the election of the Secretary General of the UN it is the Security Council that selects the candidate before forwarding the name to the assembly to formalise approval of its choice.

Unlike the election of the President of the assembly, the choice of a Secretary General is not an easy matter since he or she (there hasn’t been a female SG) must be acceptable to all the ‘big five’.

Ambassador Olara Otunnu met that criteria in 1996 and could easily have become Secretary General when the Americans made it clear to Egypt that they would not support Boutros Boutros Ghali for re-election to a second term and wanted another African to replace him. President Museveni refused to nominate Otunnu inspite of appeals by some Western countries.

The post was subsequently offered to Ghana’s Kofi Anan; who fortunately did a commendable job, earning himself and the UN a Nobel Prize for Peace. The refusal of the government to put forward a seasoned diplomat and intellectual like Dr Otunnu for the post, let alone denying him a Uganda passport, was extremely unfortunate to say the least. Uganda missed an opportunity to influence world events and make history by producing the first black African to head the United Nations.

Mr Naggaga is an economist, administrator and retired ambassador.