Kenya's UN Ambassador Martin Kimani | Credit Kenya Mission to the UN

Kenya’s UN Ambassador Martin Kimani | Live from the Aspen Security Forum

Kenya’s Ambassador to the United Nations Martin Kimani gave a viral speech at the UN Security Council on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Months later, Ambassador Kimani reflects on the impact of that speech and why Russian aggression against Ukraine is so resonant to Africa’s own experience with colonialism.

Our conversation was recorded live at the Aspen Security Forum in Mid July and Ambassador Kimani also discusses the impact of the war in Ukraine on Kenya and what opportunities still exist for multilateralism in a divided world.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

Why Did Ambassador Martin Kimani’s UN Security Council Speech Go Viral?

Martin Kimani [00:00:00] There was a photo of this bamboo basket shaped like a nuclear missile, saying, well, thank you, Ambassador Kimani, for putting us on the nuclear list.

Martin Kimani (from his UN speech) [00:01:25] “Kenya is gravely concerned by the announcement made by the Russian Federation to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine as independent states.”

Mark L. Goldberg [00:01:35] In 4 minutes, Ambassador Kimani framed Russia’s threats against Ukraine in terms of Africa’s own experience with colonialism.

Martin Kimani (from his UN speech) [00:01:46] “This situation echoes our history. Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of Empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris and Lisbon with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.”

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:09] In its coverage of the speech, The Washington Post cited a tweet of mine in which I said that I’ve been covering the UN since 2005, and this was the single best speech I’ve ever seen delivered from the Security Council dais.

Martin Kimani (from his UN speech) [00:02:25] “We believe that all states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration with peoples in neighboring states. This is normal and understandable. After all, who does not want to be joined to their brethren and to make common purpose with them? However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force.”.

What did Kenyan Ambassador Martin Kimani say in his February Security Council speech about Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:53] In our conversation, I kick off by asking Ambassador Kimani about the crafting of that speech and any impact it had on subsequent discussions and debates at the United Nations. We then have a broad discussion about how Kenya and other countries in the region are experiencing the fallout from the war in Ukraine. I want to kick off by asking you about your February 22nd speech at the Security Council. I’ve been covering the U.N. since 2005. My jaw dropped when I saw your speech. I’d never seen a more resonant speech being delivered at the Security Council — more perfectly well timed. When you were crafting that speech, what audience did you have in mind?

Martin Kimani [00:04:01] That speech was really the culmination of a position that the Kenyan government holds, and that really is personified very much by President Kenyatta. One is the desire to put Africa at the center of our own thoughts. So, as we’re thinking about the world, thinking, well, what does this mean for us? What does it mean for our experience? What is it that’s valuable from what we’ve been through that we can offer in terms of thinking, mediation, policy? So that’s all we were trying to do. We knew that we had a very short time to make the speech. We wanted to be very clear about our country’s position and clear one to the Security Council, to the broader U.N. membership, because this was a time to rally the U.N. membership around the values that we stand for and also to Kenyans. It was a moment when we knew a lot of Kenyans would be paying attention and so this was a perfect time to articulate what our country stands for.

How did Kenyans react to Ambassador Martin Kimani’s Security Council speech?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:11] So I got a good sense of how the Western media received your speech. How was it received in Kenya? What did you hear from your Kenyan friends and colleagues?

Martin Kimani [00:05:20] It was well received with very characteristic Kenyan humor. You know, there were some very funny responses.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:27] Like what?

Martin Kimani [00:05:28] Well, like one: this sort of photo of this bamboo basket shaped like a nuclear missile saying, well, thank you, Ambassador Kimani, for putting us on the nuclear list.

What affect did Ambassador Martin Kimani’s Security Council speech have on UN actions surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:40] Big target in Nairobi from Moscow. What impact, if at all, did you see that speech having in broader diplomatic discussions at the United Nations in the weeks that followed? Did you hear anything from other permanent representatives whose views you might have influenced? I mean, could you draw a line from your speech to any conversations or any decisions other permanent members, other diplomats might have taken from that speech?

Martin Kimani [00:06:14] No, not a clear line where I can say there’s a positive effect, but our statement was received well, and especially by African countries, and the greatest number of responses were about the statements recognition that Africa has made a deeply moral choice politically on how to address its colonial borders. And that, I think, was appreciated because it’s usually forgotten that 54 countries have really tried hard to live with an inexcusable experience and one that is very difficult to resolve and to accept those colonial boundaries while at the same time trying to dissolve them through integration. So that was appreciated, I think, by the African membership especially.

How did African countries vote in the UN decision to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:07] And so you got about ten days, I think after that February 22nd speech, then that was eight days or so after the February 24th election, there was a vote in the General Assembly. I think it was March 2nd in which you had the opportunity to see where every country in the world stood on condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was a major moment in the General Assembly. Very few, I think like five countries voted with Russia, 140 something voted to condemn with a relatively small number of abstentions. How did African countries approach that vote more broadly?

Martin Kimani [00:07:46] Well, the majority of African countries voted to condemn. They voted yes for the resolution. And then there was a group of about 17 that abstained. So, comparing that with other regions, this was relatively the region that had the most abstentions proportionally.

Why did the majority of African countries abstain from voting to oust Russia from the Human Rights Council?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:08] And then about a month after that, there was another vote taken at the General Assembly, this time to evict Russia from the Human Rights Council and the vote was different that time. You had more African abstentions or voting generally in favor with Russia’s position than you did that first time around. What do you think accounts for that lessening of, say, support for Kenya’s position?

Martin Kimani [00:08:34] Well, on that vote on the Human Rights Council, Kenya abstained, and the majority of African countries abstained.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:41] Why would you abstain from that, having taken such a strong position the first time around?

Martin Kimani [00:08:47] This one had nothing to do with our thoughts or solidarity with Ukraine. It reflected our sense of discomfort at the idea that we would start throwing each other out of U.N. bodies, like, where was this headed? Who was going to be next?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:07] What happened with Libya around the time of Gadhafi and the international intervention against Libya?

Martin Kimani [00:09:12] That’s a line we are not willing to cross because the direction of movement was to turn the entire U.N., all its institutions, into a vote on the Ukraine conflict and we thought that we’ve been very clear about it in the Security Council. We’ve been very clear about it at the G8. The attempts to now migrate the issue to dominate everything about the U.N. was really not the way we wanted to go.

Has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected Africa’s security and peace conversations?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:42] So I wanted to turn now to how you perceive this major conflict in Europe impacting peace and security issues in Africa or not. Have you seen any evidence thus far that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a meaningful impact on peace and security issues in Africa?

Martin Kimani [00:10:03] So far, I don’t think there has been a sort of direct cause or effect, but certainly the sharp rise in food and energy prices and fertilizer prices add to the immiseration of Africans, and that itself, over time, will have some sort of political effect.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:21] What sort of political effect do you foresee that happening?

Martin Kimani [00:10:24] Well, you will recall the so-called Arab Spring and the extent to which a significant driver of the negative public mood that led to that had to do with the economy, the price of food, the price of bread. So, I would think that that kind of situation could easily repeat itself if there’s no resolution to the crisis.

How is the Kenyan government responding to the sharp cost increases of food and fuel?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:48] Are you in Kenya right now seeing a sharp rise in costs, sharp rises in food, and if so, has the government been able to respond?

Martin Kimani [00:10:56] Yes. There’s been a significantly sharp rise in food and energy costs. The government is giving out subsidies across a range of sectors. We’re subsidizing fertilizers, petroleum and we’re subsidizing the price of corn.

How is Kenya addressing the high cost of fertilizer?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:13] So you made an interesting point on the panel just about an hour ago in which you foresaw in the wake of sharp rise in fertilizer prices, particularly the obstruction of the export of fertilizer from Belarus and Russia, which I don’t know if specifically Kenya had previously imported fertilizer from there but I know many countries in the region do, an opportunity specifically for the United States to make investments in domestic fertilizer production in Kenya. Can you flesh that out a little bit?

Martin Kimani [00:11:47] COVID taught us a lot of lessons, right? And one of the lessons it taught us, as it did a number of other regions, is that the globalized structure of production in pharmaceuticals is fine when you talk about efficiencies and costs, but when an emergency arises, a pandemic comes, suddenly you don’t have PPE, you can’t produce your own vaccines, and this stuff means lives. And so, there’s already a push, I think, globally towards understanding that the supply chain is not just about prices and about those efficiencies, but also about redundancies and being ready for emergencies. We’re learning the same thing about food now. We’re learning the same thing about fertilizer. The fact that Africa is a net importer of fertilizer, most times that’s fine but when a conflict emerges in the countries that are major exporters, then suddenly your food security is endangered. And so, I think the direction of travel for Kenya and other African countries is to see how we can become fertilizer independent.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:57] So that’s like a long-term goal or at least the medium-term goal.

Martin Kimani [00:13:01] It’s a medium to long term goal, yes.

What can other countries do to support Kenya’s work to make food and fuel accessible to its residents?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:03] So in the short term, as prices of imports rise, of food imports rise, is there anything that the international community could or should be doing in the near term, in the immediate term, to help alleviate potential humanitarian fallout of rising food costs in Kenya and other countries in the region?

Martin Kimani [00:13:25] Well, the most important thing right now would be to resolve the crisis and the conflict in Ukraine and then second to that would be to closely examine the supply chain of food products and fertilizer and determine the impact of the war on that supply chain and its costs. So, for instance, the action now, the negotiation going on between Russia, Ukraine, facilitated by Turkey and the U.N., it’s very important to enable Ukraine to export its grain via the Black Sea. That would immediately have a positive impact on prices in Kenya. Then there is some scope to look carefully into the sanctions against Russia and to analyze the secondary and unintended effects. So, the sanctions do not extend to food but there are other sanctions, for instance, in the field of insurance that could have an impact on food supply.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:28] Going back to the Security Council, in your work on the Security Council, your time on the Security Council since 2020, given how fractious geopolitics is today, what opportunities for multilateralism do you see at the Security Council, if any?

Martin Kimani [00:14:43] I would be very nervous for the day the Security Council is unanimous about everything. I don’t think the world could be better off. I think multilateralism is healthy even when there are disagreements and certainly even when there are disagreements in the Security Council. The problem is not the disagreements, it’s what causes the disagreements. When the disagreements are about the conflicts that are files of the Security Council in terms of differences in perspective, differences in approach, that is perfectly fine. But when differences reflect the geopolitical interests of members of the Security Council, it means that the issue that is being considered by the Security Council is itself not what really is driving the disagreements. At that point, multilateralism begins to suffer because the national interests of specific countries begin to drive the whole process.

What affect is Russia’s war on Ukraine having on Security Council processes?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:43] I mean, you can cite perhaps a recent example last December, I believe, in which Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution on climate security issues. I’m sure you were there for that. How would you fit that veto into your view of the utility of unanimity at the Security Council?

Martin Kimani [00:16:04] The veto against the climate and security resolution was disappointing but I think it was not just a veto by a single country. Yes, it was Russia that vetoed, but it did reflect opposition by some other members of the Security Council and certainly by other member states of the U.N. I think that veto really told me that we need to do a better job of convincing those countries to see the matter as we do. The countries that were opposed to the resolution had a few very important points. One is that it’s very important for climate change action to be linked to the commitments and the discussions on climate change that we’re having, and to delink them and to separate them into the Security Council and then the rest of the climate action part by itself over time lead to some dangerous effects, so to speak. I was on this side of the argument wanting to pass the resolution, but I thought that there was still a debate to be won there.

What does Kenya hope to accomplish in the Security Council?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:13] In the remaining months in which Kenya is on the Security Council, what are your priorities between now and December, your last day on the Security Council?

Martin Kimani [00:17:24] By the time you’re five or six months from the end of your term, is the point at which you are at your most effective in terms of your understanding of the issues.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:36] Probably personalities as well.

Martin Kimani [00:17:37] Yeah and the personalities and your relationships have sort of been built over that time. So, this is going to be an extraordinarily busy time, an ambitious time. We want to see more action against terrorism in Africa. We want the Security Council to listen to Africa in a more respectful and responsive way, and we’ll do our utmost to do that. For instance, you will have noticed an increasing divergence on how we approach arms embargoes in several African files. For example, the DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where you will often see the A3 on one side and other members of the council on the other side. This is negative, to say the least, because our position as the A3 reflects the African Union. It reflects the peace and Security Council’s investigations on the ground. So, it’s not just the holding of a lightly held position. It really speaks to Africa’s approach to that conflict.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:47] And just to be clear, you would like the Security Council to either lift or not impose embargoes on arms for Central African Republic or DRC or South Sudan.

Martin Kimani [00:18:59] We want the sanctions regime and the arms embargo regime to be more predictable, to be more transparent, and to be more responsive to the needs of the countries.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:10] Are you making any in-roads in your arguments with the rest of the Security Council on these specific cases?

Martin Kimani [00:19:16] We’re trying our best and in the next four months or so, we’ll continue trying. But I think they eventually need to understand that the Security Council doing so much of its work in Africa needs to really respect Chapter eight of the Charter on working with regional organizations and working with the African Union doesn’t mean always agreeing with what the African Union has to say, but it really means you have to listen a lot more closely.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:47] Ambassador, thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful.

Martin Kimani [00:19:50] Thank you very much.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:58] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp. Today’s episode was produced in part through the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York to feature African voices on peace and security issues in Africa. The views and opinions expressed in this conversation belong solely to those of us who express these views and opinions. Please rate and subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts.