By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Uganda's Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa was elected president of the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday despite concerns among human rights advocates, Western governments and U.N. officials about his country's recently adopted anti-gay legislation.
After his election by acclamation without a vote in the 193-nation General Assembly, Kutesa pledged to promote gender equality and women's rights and to continue a United Nations drive to eradicate poverty and combat climate change. He did not raise the issue of gay rights.
Kutesa had received the unanimous support of delegations in the African Group, the U.N. caucus of African nations at the world body. It was Africa's turn to supply a nominee for the post, a largely ceremonial but high-profile position that involves presiding over meetings of the General Assembly.
Kutesa's home country has been heavily criticized in recent months by the United Nations, Western nations and rights advocacy groups for its anti-gay legislation.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has previously called on Uganda to repeal a law imposing harsh penalties for homosexuality, warning it could fuel prejudice and encourage harassment and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. [ID:nL1N0LU1VY]
After his election, Kutesa was asked by reporters about his position on gays. He suggested that they should keep their sexual preferences private.
"Well, as long as they respect the privacy ... I have no problem with it at all," he said, adding about his own support for the country's controversial legislation: "Me supporting it or not supporting it is of no consequence. It is a law."
"I have never been found corrupt. I am not homophobic," he added.
Philippe Bolopion of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the choice of Kutesa was questionable.
"Sam Kutesa's defense of Uganda's profoundly discriminatory anti-homosexuality law raises serious concerns about his commitment to the values embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and makes him a questionable choice by U.N. member states to lead the U.N. General Assembly," he said.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, addressing the assembly on behalf of the Western European and Others Group, spoke of the importance of opposing all forms of discrimination in congratulatory remarks he made after Kutesa's election.
Lyall Grant said it was important the assembly's new agenda "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 that since "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are endangered for who they are, including by discriminatory laws, the work of the United Nations to advance equality, justice, and dignity for all could not be more urgent."
Kutesa also told reporters he would "take leave of absence from my business holdings for the duration of the session," which lasts one year beginning in September. He said this was in response to a "conspiracy" created by the opposition in Uganda.