Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
February 1, 2023
MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to Bloomberg in Washington, and a big thanks to Ambassador for joining us today. Thank you for taking the time.
Ambassador, I thought I’d start off with your recent trip to Africa because you’re literally almost just days back from visiting several –
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Hours, hours. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: So, thank you so much. You visited several countries in Africa and we saw some real signs of hope – photos of you actually on an electric motorcycle in a factory in Kenya – but also some real signs of struggle to come for the region. So what was one of your biggest takeaways in terms of the future of Africa’s economies?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I really went with a sense of hope, and I left with a sense of hope. I started out in Ghana, where I had the opportunity to meet with the foreign minister and an extraordinary group of women who were in leadership positions at every level to talk about Ghana’s potential, Ghana’s struggles – because they are facing serious economic consequences from the war in Ukraine as well as from COVID – but there was a sense, really, of hope there.
And they’re a member of the Security Council, so let me just back up a bit because part of the trip was to engage with current and former members of the Security Council, and Ghana is a member of the Security Council on a two-year elected term.
And then I went on to Mozambique, also newly elected to the Security Council, to engage with that government on their priorities on the Security Council, but also their challenges dealing with security, their challenges dealing with climate change. And I had the extraordinary opportunity to work with volunteers who were replanting one of the last remaining mangrove forests in Mozambique, in Maputo, a place called Two Trees Beach. So I went back – it was Three Trees Beach and there were only two left, so I went and planted a third tree and helped them clean up the beach. And that left a real impact on me seeing the dedication of communities to address their issues and work to improve. And then meeting with the government, meeting with young African leaders from the YALI program who are in – who are businesswomen and seeing the kinds of things that they were doing.
I then went on to Kenya, where, again, raising the issues of Security Council because Kenya had been a member of the Security Council for two years. I met with the president where we talked about the security challenges they’re facing, but also what they are doing to deal with climate change and COVID, and that’s where you saw me visiting this electric motorcycle plant and had the opportunity to ride an electric motorbike. We’re not going to discuss how I rode it.
MODERATOR: I was going to say, how did that go?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: But I took a great picture and – (laughter)
MODERATOR: Very stable in the picture.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And then the final stop to Somalia, where we really highlighted the humanitarian issues that they were facing with the looming possibility of a famine, but also dealing with difficult security issues as well as trying to bring the political parties together to unify the government moving forward.
MODERATOR: So, in talking to some of my colleagues in Africa in preparation for today, they wanted to ask you: Do you see the potential to avoid widespread death and famine in some regions like you just spoke about – Somalia – this year?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We avoided a famine last year, but people still died. Even without declaring a famine, we saw deaths. Somalia has faced five failed rainfalls. They are in line to have another failed rainfall, their sixth, in the March-April timeframe. And we’re doing everything possible to help avert a famine. I announced an additional $40 million in U.S. assistance. We’ve given about $1.3 billion to Somalia alone, about $2.4 billion in the region to address the famine and to work to avoid it.
So, we’re doing everything possible to help to avert this, but people die even when there’s not a famine. And so the work that we have to do is really continuing.
MODERATOR: The UN announced a program, Zero Hunger by 2030. How far do you think we are away from that?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’ve had some setbacks because of COVID, but also because of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine together provide about 25 percent of wheat supplies to the world and many countries in Africa depend on about 50 percent wheat. And with the price of wheat going up as well as the price of fertilizer, it’s had a devastating impact on hunger in Africa as well as in the Middle East.
So, we’re still progressing, but it’s been slow progress because of the consequences of climate, COVID, and conflict. And certainly, in Somalia, we’re seeing conflict every day.
MODERATOR: You just mentioned climate. In terms of loss and damage funds for countries in Africa and Asia that are low emitters but actually getting the hardest hit by climate change and global warming, what’s your perspective on the need for those type of funds to go to those places?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re committed to supporting those countries that are low emitters and working with them on loss and damage. I highlight Kenya, where they’re doing extraordinary things, including developing electric cars, electric buses and motorbikes, and they are a low emitter. And so we want to work with those countries to continue to commit to making changes to support our climate commitments and their climate commitments, but we also support assisting them in addressing these issues, and particularly as it relates to loss and damage.
MODERATOR: Staying on Africa for one more question here, Secretary Janet Yellen was also in Africa last month. She was talking about debt relief in some places like Zambia, where you also have people like China who believe that restructuring of certain debts is not the way to go. What’s your perspective on debt relief for some of these countries in Africa that are really struggling?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I worked in the Africa Bureau back in the early 2000s when we worked – the administration at that time worked to help African countries address their debt issues, and China has come in and re-indebted these countries. And so Secretary Yellen’s visit, I think, highlighted some of those issues and highlighted our efforts to assist those countries to address the debt problems, to assist them in moving forward.
We have provided assistance to many African countries, and we will continue to do that. Janet Yellen’s visit was – came about as a result of the Africa Leaders Summit, where the President committed that we will be actively engaged on the continent. And he encouraged cabinet members to make visits, and Janet Yellen’s visit, I think, was an important one as it addressed the issues related to debt, but also issues related to trade. And again, I highlighted our relationships across the board with Africans in terms of the work that we’re doing in the multilateral field.
MODERATOR: As you mentioned, the war in Ukraine has affected food prices and impacted a food crisis really globally, not just in Africa. We’ve even seen here in the United States food prices skyrocket. I can’t believe how much we’ve written in the last year about egg prices. (Laughter.) It’s extraordinary. So, what’s your view on the food insecurity in the U.S. and how that may impact our exports and food in other places?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The President has expressed a strong commitment to addressing inflation and – food inflation in particular, but inflation broadly in the United States, but also helping the rest of the world to address those issues as well. We know that we’re experiencing – not as critical as countries, say, in Africa or in the Middle East – but we’re experiencing high prices as well. And we have worked with our private sector so that we can ensure that we provide food for any people, anywhere in the world who are hungry, but that we produce more here in the United States. And we distribute that food in such a way that we don’t experience the kind of hunger and really address some of the issues that people here in the United States are facing.
MODERATOR: You mentioned the war in Ukraine. At this time last year, your colleagues at the UN were working round the clock to try to find a peaceful solution. We’re just weeks away from a one-year anniversary of Russia invading Ukraine and the war is still going. What’s your perspective on how much more the UN can do to find a peaceful solution here?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we did our best over the course of months before the invasion to convince the Russians not to invade Ukraine and to deal with their issues of security in a diplomatic fashion. And our efforts started with the President engaging with President Putin. Putin decided that he wanted to invade Ukraine, and he started this unprovoked war that has led to devastation in Ukraine and around the world.
In New York, we have roundly condemned those efforts. And while Russia sits on the Security Council and they have the veto power, we have been able to take the focus of condemnation to the General Assembly. We won an overwhelming vote condemning their actions. We later won an overwhelming vote condemning their annexations or attempted annexations in Ukraine. We kicked them off of the UN Human Rights Commission. And we’re continuing to put pressure on them and isolate them in New York.
I commend the Secretary-General’s efforts to find a way forward to get Russian and Ukrainian grain out of the Black Sea. The Black Sea initiative has led to significant wheat being put onto the markets in Africa and into the mouths of people. And so we’re going to continue those efforts. We will be having programs around the one-year anniversary starting sometime around February 22nd, 23rd, and we will continue our efforts to pressure the Russians to end this unprovoked war.
It’s in Putin’s hands. He can take his troops out of Ukraine today and the war will end. But in the meantime, until he does that, we will continue to support the Ukrainians’ efforts to defend themselves.
MODERATOR: You were sworn in, I think you were telling me, on February 24th, 2021. What’s your relationship been like since the war started with your counterparts at the UN from Russia and even China?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They’re Permanent Members of the Security Council, so we engage them. And before the war in Ukraine, we engaged them on a regular basis. We’ve been able to accomplish a few things. We got the Syrian resolution over the past two years. It’s been extended. We got it extended for a year and then we had it extended for six months again. I think that’s a major accomplishment.
But we still have areas where we’re not able to work together, and clearly, Ukraine is one of those areas. DPRK is another one. The Security Council was able to pass resolutions unanimously on the situation in DPRK. But over the course of the past year, China and Russia have blocked any efforts by the Security Council to hold the DPRK accountable. So it’s a relationship that is, I would say, tense, but we’re able to work together on some issues, and others we know we will not be able to come to any agreements on.
MODERATOR: There’s been a lot of reporting just in recent days about the mercenary Wagner Group with ties to Russia. What’s your view on whether or not the UN should investigate the group for human rights violations not only pertaining to military action in Ukraine, but also in places in Africa?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The actions of the Wagner Group is very concerning, particularly as we see what they’re doing in Ukraine as well as, as you mentioned, in Africa. As you may know, the Treasury Department put sanctions on them about two weeks ago as a criminal – international criminal organization.
What they’re doing in Africa is unacceptable. We acknowledge that African countries have security concerns, they have security issues that need to be addressed. Wagner is not the entity that can do that for them. We need to have better-trained African troops. We need to work with the region to ensure that they can address the security issues and support the United Nations’ efforts to bring peace to the African continent.
Wagner – we – even in the State Department we had already put sanctions on them previously, and we will continue to press that they cease their efforts in both Ukraine as well as on the continent of Africa, and we have encouraged the UN to call them out for the actions that they are currently engaged in in Ukraine and on the continent.
MODERATOR: When you look globally, we’ve seen North Korea continue to expand its nuclear capabilities, Iran talks have stalled, and of course we have the Ukraine war. When people say to you, “How effective can the UN really be in the current global landscape,” how do you answer that?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We only have the UN, and we have to strengthen the UN, and this is one of the reasons we have been promoting discussions and actions moving forward on UN reform. Russia is a Permanent Member of the Security Council, able to use its veto power to block the Security Council from taking actions on what Russia is doing, and this is unacceptable. And that’s why we have to find a path forward to have additional elected members of the Security Council but also additional Permanent Members of the Security Council. It’s time for reform, and it’s time for Russia and others to feel the pressure from the entire world, and it can’t happen as long as the Security Council is being blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes.
MODERATOR: Do you think there is a way to remove Russia from the Security Council?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They are a Permanent Member of the Security Council, and so the path to removing them is not something that we can see right now. But in the meantime, we’re going to keep isolating them, we’re going to keep condemning them. We will keep the pressure on them.
MODERATOR: I want to leave time for some questions from the audience, but I just want to circle back to Africa for my last question. I know you’ve spent most – well, a lot of your career there, about half I think you were saying, and have worked a lot on refugee programs. How would you describe the situation for refugees around the world right now?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s still a dire situation for refugees around the world. We are still trying to find durable solutions for the millions of people who have been forced to leave their homes, millions of them living in IDP camps. I was struck in Kenya – when I was in Kenya in the early ’90s there was a refugee camp, Dadaab, that had about 120,000, but don’t quote me on my numbers, but somewhere around that number of refugees in Dadaab. I’m told the number has reached somewhere around 400,000 and they’ve been there for 30 years.
I commend the Kenyan Government for their hospitality. I was really pleased to hear President Ruto say these people have no home to go back to, they’re basically Kenyans, so he is looking at how to open up settlements so that they can work in Kenya. And we have to look for efforts like that elsewhere.
The U.S. is the largest contributor to humanitarian programs around the world. And we know – every time I travel – that people depend on the aid that we provide to support them and to ensure their livelihoods.
So the situation, of course we need to do much more. I announced when I was in Kenya a new program that supports families in the United States welcoming refugees to the United States. That’s a novel program, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of that. We’re bringing in about 40,000 African refugees to the United States this year. When I worked on these programs in the 1990s, the number was about 2,000.
MODERATOR: Two thousand to 40,000 – that’s quite a big change.
Well, I do want to open it up to questions from the audience just now. Would you mind saying your name and affiliation for the ambassador when you ask a question?
QUESTION: Sure, thank you. Will Mauldin with The Wall Street Journal. Good to see you, Ambassador. Just wanted to follow up on one thing you mentioned, the programming around the Ukraine anniversary of the invasion by Russia coming up this year. There has been some talk of having a crime of aggression tribunal set up by the UN General Assembly, not the UN Security Council, which is normally favored for major tribunals. Do you support that, and do you support other acts or other ways to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression? Or if you have something else you’re planning for the—
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There are a number of things that are in the planning for that day. I think what we’re looking at right now is to have a ministerial in the General Assembly and to put a resolution on the table in the Security Council.* We are discussing the crimes of aggression resolution as well. I don’t know that that will come up on the anniversary, but it’s something that we’re working on in the General Assembly.
QUESTION: Do you support (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’ve supported that.
MODERATOR: Great. I think we’ve lost the mike somewhere. I just want to make sure – oh, there you go, Rebecca.
QUESTION: Hi, Madam Ambassador. I’m Angela Greiling Keane; I run the Bloomberg government newsroom. My question is advancing on what you were just talking about on refugees in the United States. The UN, including the UNHCR, has expressed some concerns about some of the recent actions by the Biden administration, including on parole and the forthcoming asylum action, about what that may mean for welcoming refugees here. I’m curious to hear your thoughts and concerns on that topic.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The asylum program is different from the refugee program, and our refugee program is lauded by UNHCR. It’s the largest, most generous resettlement program that any country provides for refugees around the world, not just for Africa but around the world. And that program is one that I am very, very, very proud of. The administration is working to address the issues of asylum, and it’s something that I would direct you to our DHS office to get details on. But it’s something that we take very seriously.
QUESTION: Hi. Courtney Kube with NBC News. If I could just ask you about two different topics, one on – from your recent trip. I’m wondering what did you learn – specifics – about how the famine and humanitarian crisis in Somalia is impacting the national security issues there. Specifically, is it helping al-Shabaab? Were there any numbers or specifics that you learned that you can share with us?
And then on the refugee issue, al-Hol and al-Roj in Syria – I’d love to get your sense of where you think both of those camps are right now. Is there really any chance of repatriating the tens of thousands of people who are there, including not just the Iraqis who seem – they seem to be making – but all the other nationals, and then the Syrians who are there? Just what your sense of the future of both of those camps. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: On the famine, we – I had a very, very intense conversation with the president of Somalia on that. And we have always felt that conflict is a contributor to food insecurity, and it’s an issue that I have addressed in both of my presidencies of the Security Council: how conflict contributes to hunger and contributes to famine.
I think most people in Somalia do not see al-Shabaab as being a help to them. They see al-Shabaab as hindering their ability to get access to food, and many of the communities where al-Shabaab actually was and have – they’ve been pushed out by the government, those communities have actually reached out to the government to ask for support in getting al-Shabaab out. Al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization, and it’s a terrorist organization that does not care about the people who are under their control. And so for that reason we’re continuing our work with the government to make sure that we push al-Shabaab out of Somalia.
And on the camps in Syria, we have been working over the course of – during the two years that I have been here in the position to work with countries who have nationals in those camps to take their nationals back. We’re certainly encouraging Iraq to take some of their nationals back. Those who are from Syria, until this war ends, they don’t have a place to go back to. And that’s why we’re keeping the pressure on the Syrian Government to cease their actions and to find a peaceful path forward so that people can go home.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: If I could estimate that, it would – we would be working with that date. There’s no estimate, but just know that we’re constantly working on that, and I know that our colleagues at the United Nations are working as well.
MODERATOR: Pete, did you have a question?
QUESTION: Thanks so much, Ambassador. I’m Peter Martin from Bloomberg News. I work on national security. I guess there’s been a lot of publicity recently about China is trying to reset its ties with countries around the world – with Australia – and I wondered, is that something that you have witnessed during your diplomacy at the UN? Is there an effort to charm countries? What would that mean in areas of the U.S.-China ties? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So, I have not seen the charm offensive. What I have seen is inordinate pressure on governments that push governments to not – for example, when we hosted a meeting, what’s called an Arria-formula meeting, on the situation with the Uyghurs, what I heard from many of my colleagues is that they were being pressured not to participate in those meetings.
We have seen China take a more proactive effort to engage with Africans on the continent of Africa. The new foreign minister was on the continent recently. But what I heard from African – from people and leaders when I was there very clearly was that America is in their hearts, and they are extraordinarily appreciative of the African Leaders Summit that we just hosted and the efforts that we are making to engage more proactively on the continent of Africa.
MODERATOR: Ambassador, I think that’s all we have time for because we know you have an extraordinarily busy schedule. So just wanted to say thank you very much for your time and for sharing your insights. And to everyone who joined us both in the room here at Bloomberg in Washington and to those who watched virtually online, we thank you very much. I just ask that you remain seated while the ambassador exits, and please join us for lunch if you can.
Ambassador, thank you again.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much. (Applause.)
*…a ministerial in the Security Council and a resolution in the General Assembly.