Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
May 6, 2022
QUESTION: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, welcome to “Firing Line.”
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you. Delighted to be here with you, Margaret.
QUESTION: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently warned that the threat of nuclear war, quote, “should not be underestimated.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that a nuclear attack that was once unthinkable is now back within the realm of possibility. If Russia does deploy a tactical nuclear weapon, what is the plan at the United Nations to respond to this kind of horrific event?
So we have to take the threat seriously. And it’s a serious threat particularly for a Permanent Member of the Security Council to make such a threat, and we will respond and hold them accountable.
QUESTION: Is there a plan in place?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The plan is to bring them before the Security Council. The plan is to discourage them from taking such an action. And it’s our hope that the pressure that we’re putting on them now in the Security Council will encourage them not to take these types of actions and not to make these kinds of threats against a defenseless Ukraine when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. And should they make the mistake of using nuclear weapons, we will hold them accountable. I won’t detail what we will do here, but they should know that we will respond very, very strongly to them if they should do that.
QUESTION: Let’s go back to February 24th, the day Ukraine was invaded by Russia. Vladimir Putin announced the start of what he called the “special military operation” in Ukraine, and that announcement came in the middle of an emergency UN Security Council meeting intended to avert a war.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: At the exact time as we were gathered in the Council seeking peace, Putin delivered a message of war in total disdain for the responsibility of this Council. This is a grave emergency.
QUESTION: You said recently that the job of the Security Council is to “save the world from the scourge of war,” which comes directly from the UN’s Charter. How does this work, then, when Russia is one of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council and has veto power?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s particularly galling when it’s a Permanent Member of the Security Council who takes such an action. But we have been very effective in isolating Russia, in condemning Russia, and in ensuring that we call out Russia at every opportunity that we can call them out in the Security Council. And it was so embarrassing, I think, for our Russian colleagues to have this war start when we were in the middle of an emergency Security Council meeting. As we were sitting in that meeting, we started to get feeds on our emails and on Twitter that the Russian attack started, and we saw our Russian colleagues looking at their phones as well.
So this was not what they expected, and it certainly was not what we expected to happen that day. We had been warning about this for weeks. That was the reason for calling the emergency meeting. But I don’t think any of us expected that the Russians would have the audacity to start it in the middle of that meeting. But I think they also had been surprised at the reaction that we were able to pass a General Assembly resolution that condemned them with 141 votes and suspended them from the Human Rights Council.
So this war of aggression that the Russians have started against the Ukrainians has not succeeded. The only success that the Russians can see from all of this is that they have unified the world against them.
QUESTION: Ambassador, some have called for Russia to be removed from the Security Council entirely, including Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that it is not possible to remove them from the UN Charter, but there is an effort under way to remove Russian on the grounds that it took the seat from the defunct Soviet Union in 1991 without proper authorization. Is this something that should be at least considered?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Russia is a Permanent Member of the Security Council, but their permanent membership does not give them a pass to do the kinds of aggression and take the kinds of actions that they have taken against the Ukrainian people, and that’s why with their veto power we’ve been able to push back. They can’t veto condemnation, they can’t veto our voices, and they can’t veto the isolation that they are feeling. And I’m very aware and very sympathetic to the Ukrainian president’s view that the Council has been, in his view, slow to act, but we have been taking pretty aggressive actions against the Russians since this started, and we will continue to do that.
I’m also aware of their request to re-look at Russia’s permanent seat on the Security Council. But again, the Russians have the permanent seat, and I don’t see at the moment that there will be any changes in that, but we will continue in our efforts to isolate them.
QUESTION: You were a regional refugee coordinator for the State Department when the Rwandan genocide began in 1994. Many, including President Biden, have accused Russia of committing genocide in Ukraine right now, and while that statement and categorization hasn’t been verified by the State Department, there still needs to be some way of holding Putin accountable. What can be done to hold Putin accountable?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’ve also been very clear – the President, I have, the Secretary – that what the Russians have done in Ukraine constitutes war crimes, and we are working with all of the institutions that are investigating and collecting evidence so that when the time comes for us to hold the Russians accountable, we have the documentation, we have the evidence to support that so that we can hold them accountable.
QUESTION: The Biden administration along with the support of Republicans is debating how much it could support an investigation of Russia for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. But the United States, as you know, has never been a member of the ICC and Congress has passed laws limiting the U.S.’s support of the court over concerns that it might investigate Americans, frankly. In the past, the U.S. has said the ICC doesn’t have jurisdiction over non-member countries, but is there a case for the ICC investigating a country that isn’t a member?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There’s absolutely a case for the ICC investigating countries that are not members. The Security Council has been clear that it is the responsibility of the Russians to respond to requests for investigations, and we are supporting the ICC’s efforts. Granted, we’re not a member of the ICC, but when egregious human rights violations are being committed, when war crimes are being committed, it is absolutely critical that organizations like the ICC, like the prosecutor’s office, the ICJ, and others be empowered to investigate and hold countries accountable.
QUESTION: In a positive turn of events, Russia was suspended from the Human Rights Council last month. But China remains on the council, despite carrying out a genocide against the Uyghurs, and I know that I don’t need to remind you that it is the official position of the United States that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, a Muslim minority. Why should China remain on the Council if Russia is off?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we’ve been clear on China that human rights violations and genocide is being committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. And we have a number of other members on the Human Rights Council whose credibility is questionable, and this is something as we look at the future of reform of the Human Rights Council that we need to look at how to address those issues.
The fact that we were able to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, I think, probably put some concerns on the table for others like Russia, like China, who have been accused of committing human rights violations that this could as well happen to them. And as you might have noticed, the Chinese did not support the resolution against the Russians.
QUESTION: You mentioned other countries who are also on the Human Rights Council, who have, you said, “questionable records.” I mean, you know, or egregious records, like Cuba and Venezuela. But you mentioned reforms. What kind of reforms do you have in mind for the Human Rights Council?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re going to be sitting down to talk about those issues, and this is why we think it is so important that the United States return to the Human Rights Council, because we know when we’re sitting on the Council that we have the ability, we have the power to push back on the actions of these countries that have committed human rights violations who are trying to stop the Human Rights Council from carrying out its mandate and its responsibilities.
So we are looking at a number of reforms of the Council in terms of membership, in terms of the length of membership, in terms of the actions that can be taken against members of the Council who have committed human rights violations. So we look forward to having those discussions and making some recommendations moving forward.
QUESTION: William F. Buckley, Jr. was the original host of “Firing Line,” and he actually became a delegate to the UN in 1973, and then wrote a book about it. In 1976, he hosted Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the program, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and they discussed the value of the United Nations as an institution.
AMBASSADOR DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: You said that in your book – and that was a good book, it was “A Delegate’s Odessey” – that the debate is what that place can, in fact, do. What it can’t do is legislate, what it can’t do is act, and it has no such powers. And its pretension to those powers are what get it in most trouble. But precisely as a setting in which to encounter what you call “moral reality,” it seems to me that’s a place where we should be and should be making our positions known.
QUESTION: He makes the case that the value of the UN is that it is a place for debate between nations. How do you make the case for the UN as an institution against the backdrop of countries who are Permanent Members but consistently defy its charter?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, when the UN was created, when the Security Council was created, we all agreed there was a sense of responsibility for the UN and for the Security Council to be the place where issues of peace and security could be addressed, and that we could stop the future scourge of war. And the Council and the General Assembly still has that responsibility. And I agree we can debate, but more than debate, we can condemn, we can hold countries accountable, we can look for ways of isolating those countries. And we have been able to successfully do that in the case of Russia. They are feeling the isolation, they are feeling the condemnation, and they are seeing that the world is united against them. And we will continue to put that pressure on them until they stop this unjustified war against Ukraine.
But we don’t have any other institution other than the United Nations to carry out the mandates of peace and security. There’s no other institution that has the membership that the United Nations has. So while the United Nations is not perfect – we have to constantly recalibrate ourselves, we have to constantly reform – but it is a place where you can have serious debate, and that hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: This month you will serve as the UN Security Council’s President. You’re going to use that platform to focus on cyber threats, disinformation, and abuses in the digital space. We have seen Russia’s representatives at the UN use the General Assembly and the Security Council to make blatantly false statements about its actions in Ukraine. How did Russia’s actions during the run-up to the invasion, Ambassador, inform your decision to make this a priority while you’re President?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That is an important question, because what we have seen the Russians do is try to use the UN, to use the Security Council, to use cyberspace to promote their disinformation, to promote their propaganda, to try to influence others to agree with their attack on Ukraine. And their bringing it before the Security Council has allowed us, as well as many other countries, to respond aggressively to that, to counter their disinformation and misinformation campaigns, and to ensure that the world has the correct picture of what is happening. And Margaret, I’ll say to you that is an important role for the press as well – to have a free press to get out the information that is needed so that the world has a better understanding.
So it did play into our decision on using our presidency to bring in digital technology as one of those mechanisms that has both opportunities as well as risks. So what we want to talk about are the risks, but we also want to look at the opportunities – the opportunities to use digital technologies, to bring information to people in far-flung places, to provide opportunities to bring families together who have been separated by war, to look at the impact of climate change on the environment and see how we can use the information that we’re gathering about climate change to help address peace and security issues across the globe.
Clearly, the Russians will look for opportunities to again promote their disinformation campaign, but we’re in a position – and I think we’re unified in the Council – in trying to push back against that. And I think this will be a great opportunity for the world to see the importance of our digital technology platforms, but also to understand the risks.
QUESTION: When you were UN Security Council President 14 months ago, you focused on mounting food insecurity, and that is going to be one of your priorities again this month. The war in Ukraine has accelerated the crisis. The flow of wheat from Ukraine, much of which went to Africa, has all but stopped, and the FAO food price index has hit an all-time high. What does the world need to do to respond to this crisis?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First of all, the world recognizes that this is a crisis. I have had meetings across the UN Member States, and almost every meeting with regional groups, they have raised food security as a major concern for them as one of the consequences of the war in Ukraine. And what we want them to understand is that the food insecurity that they are facing is a consequence of the war, and not – as the Russians in their disinformation campaign – it is not a result of sanctions that we have placed on Russia. And we need to work to address the supply chain for getting food and particularly the wheat that so many countries in the Middle East and Africa have become dependent on, how we open up those corridors so that we can keep the wheat corridors open for these countries.
We have a dire humanitarian crisis in front of us because many of the countries in the world who depend on humanitarian assistance got their wheat from Ukraine, and we have to look at how we can address those issues and look for other avenues for countries to get their wheat, including producing wheat themselves. When you look at the continent of Africa, it is a continent that is rich in resources, both land resources as well as other resources. And we think that as we work with our colleagues across the continent of Africa that we can look for opportunities where they can fill some of the gaps. And so we’re hoping to have a broad discussion over the course of what we’re calling a Week of Action on food insecurity, and raise the profile of the issue but also look at how we can address the issue across the board.
So this is going to be an incredibly important discussion, and I have invited Secretary Blinken to come and sit in the chair during this discussion to raise that profile, and hopefully we will be getting other high-level participants from other countries to participate.
QUESTION: As Ambassador to the UN, you have traveled to Turkey’s border with Syria and visited the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, and you have announced that you will return next week. This border crossing is run by the UN, and it is the last authorized border crossing into Syria, and a critical pathway for humanitarian aid. According to the UN, its humanitarian operation there is the biggest in the world. The authorization for that crossing expires in July, and Russia is the key to keeping it open. But they could veto it. So in this moment, how are you engaging with Russia in order to keep it open?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First of all, I’m going to take the trip out there next week to get an update on the situation on the ground so that when we have our meeting in the Security Council – and we’re planning to do three during our presidency – that I’m well informed about the situation. We know that this border crossing is key to feeding millions of Syrians.
But what I will say to the Russians is we’ve taken their concerns into account, that they want to see more food being distributed cross-line. But cross-line cannot replace cross-border. So we need to have both. So that’s the conversation that I intend to have with my Russian colleagues. The point I will make to them is that this is in their interest as well. They don’t want to see a Syria where people are forced into more desperation because needed humanitarian assistance is not being given to them.
So I am hopeful that the Russians will see the importance of this and will do what they did last year and vote with the rest of the Security Council and unanimously support the extension of cross-border assistance. And of course I would like to see that extended to other border areas as well and move beyond Bab al-Hawa and reopen some of the other border crossings.
QUESTION: Well, we hope you are successful in that endeavor. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you very much for your time with us here today. Thank you for joining me on “Firing Line.”
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good, thank you very much, and continue reporting as you’re reporting – the world depends on you as much as it depends on the Security Council and Member States to get out the true information about what is happening on the ground.