In October, the United Nations Security Council diplomats are packing up their suitcases and hopping on an overseas flight to the Sahel region of West Africa to assess the serious challenges that this semiarid strip is countering. It is the first Council trip abroad since the pandemic hit in March 2020.
“The Sahara is facing a profound challenge from terrorism and insurgency, and there is a series of multinational responses and frameworks that are trying to respond to this unprecedented challenge . . . and there are areas where successes proved to be difficult to hold on to,” Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue in an interview. “So the Security Council wants to go and assess for itself” the situation. The Council is planning to travel to West Africa — Mali and Niger — from Oct. 22 to 26. It will be the Council’s first trip since October 2019, when it went to South Sudan and Ethiopia. (The UN has a peacekeeping mission in Mali, called Minusma, which is continuously attacked by insurgents. On Oct. 2, an Egyptian peacekeeper was killed in an attack.)
Kenya, one of three elected African members of the Council, wants to prioritize the continent’s main issues overall in its rotating presidency: climate-related challenges; women, peace and security; and counterterrorism. Kenya’s two-year term in the Council started in January 2021.
“We have our national priorities, which are a mix of our Kenyan priorities,” Kimani added, “which are always aligned with Africa’s priorities, in our view. We want this month to have conversations that try and give the Council an opportunity to think of its approaches a bit more strategically.”
One high-level debate, to be held on Oct.12 on diversity in state-building and the search for peace, will be chaired by Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who will attend the meeting in person. He will also preside over the Council’s meeting on UN-African Union cooperation on Oct. 28, albeit virtually.
One topic that Kenya wants to prioritize is small arms and light weapons, which help to sow violence in conflicts across the continent.
“When we’re talking about the urgency and priorities in protecting the peace, leaving out illicit small arms and light weapons is avoiding a big elephant in the room — perhaps it’s a bit disingenuous sometimes,” Kimani said. He added that the Council prefers to think that the topic belongs in the General Assembly. “But in every single situation we’re dealing with, illicit small arms and light weapons are a big factor in how our peacekeeping missions are operated. And so we want to shine a light on how peacekeeping operations interact with illicit small arms and light weapons.”
Most small arms and light weapons in the world are exported from Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States, the Council’s permanent members.
In October, Kenya will have to handle the delicate file of Ethiopia, as its government recently made seven UN officials, including high-level ones, persona non grata in the country. The UN has rejected the declaration, although it has moved the officials from the country. According to Ambassador Kimani, a Council statement on Ethiopia’s actions is in the works, but Kenya and its African counterparts in the body, Niger and Tunisia, say they want to make sure that such a product is not too politicized.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as their countries assume the presidency of the Security Council. This column follows ones this year on Tunisia, Britain, the US, Vietnam, China, Estonia, France, India and Ireland.
To hear an original analysis with more details on Kenya’s presidency and insights from Geoffrey Lugano, a lecturer at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, on Patreon or SoundCloud, produced by Stéphanie Fillion and Kacie Candela. (Excerpts of the podcast are included in the interview below.)
Ambassador to the UN: Martin Kimani, 50
Since: December 2020
Languages: Swahili, English
Education: B.A., University of New Hampshire; M.A. and Ph.D. in war studies, King’s College London
His story, briefly: If there was one path Ambassador Kimani did not plan to take in his career, it was diplomacy. “That question is a question that I asked myself, and there are two answers,” he said. “There’s the one where I say I planned the whole thing, and then there’s the truth: which is that it was a series of fortunate accidents and blessings that got me on this path.”
Kimani started his career in the private sector, working in global currency and bond markets, in political risk advisory for underwriters and other corporations as well as in peace and security in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. For him, the government and private industry have few transferable skills: “All you carry forward is a sense of the rhythm of intensity, of global perception, a spread that is underpinned by happenings. . . . ,” he said.
After a decade in finance, he got his first government job working as Kenya’s permanent representative to the UN’s Environment Program, which is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. He then directed the country’s national counterterrrorism center and ended up becoming Kenyatta’s special envoy for countering violent extremism. “It demanded a sort of diplomacy to coordinate different agencies and to press for Kenya’s counterterrorism equities globally.” That led to his becoming Kenya’s permanent representative in New York City.
If he gets worn out by Turtle Bay’s complicated political dynamics, would Ambassador Kimani go back to working on Wall Street? After all, he lives near the Financial District. “Oh no, no, no, they’re done [with me]. They’ve moved on.”
Ambassador Kimani talked to PassBlue on Sept. 30. His remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell me more about the Security Council meeting on small arms and light weapons and why it’s important for Kenya right now? The other day, we were talking about the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and this is one of those items that comes up and we all say the same thing because that’s how important that agenda is to global peace and security. That’s even an understatement: [it’s a threat] to the future of the human race. So I was really struck, and I asked one of our experts, can we put in language in our statement about illicit small arms and light weapons, because if you look at the impact of the AK-47 on human security, on national security or on regional security, it’s immense. So when we’re talking about the urgency and priorities in protecting the peace, leaving out illicit small arms and light weapons is avoiding a big elephant in the room.
In our understanding, [the Council doesn’t have] a strong appetite to deal with this subject, it prefers to think that it belongs in the GA [General Assembly]. But in every single situation we’re dealing with, illicit small arms and light weapons is a big factor in how our peacekeeping missions are operated. So we want to shine a light on how peacekeeping operations interact with illicit small arms and light weapons. And we are amongst a group of states, particularly the elected states [in the Council], that see this as a priority, and Mexico has shown a lot of leadership. So I’m expecting that in November during their presidency, they shall keep up the focus.
Why was it important for you to organize the first overseas trip of the Security Council since the pandemic hit? What results are you hoping to achieve from traveling to Mali and Niger? The Sahara is facing a profound challenge from terrorism and insurgency, and there is a series of multinational responses and frameworks that are trying to respond to this unprecedented challenge. And in many ways, there are areas where successes proved to be difficult to hold on to, so the Security Council wants to go and assess for itself [the situation]. What are the fresh ideas we can find on the ground in Mali, especially when we speak to stakeholders, whether it’s government or outside government? What can they tell us that goes beyond the reports we get from the [UN] secretariat that offers fresh direction, fresh ideas?
Our trip is a reflection of the Council really wanting to do more for the Sahara, and we wanted to facilitate that as much as possible. We are a country that is also on the front-lines of fighting global terrorist organizations, such as Al Shabab. When we look at the challenges in the Sahel, we consider ourselves as much a part of their fight as possible. We really hope that that’s the attitude all member states have, because it’s a problem that travels and moves.
Currently in the Council, the informal group of A3+1, or Africa plus one, consists of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Niger, Tunisia and Kenya. But with three of those countries’ terms ending on Dec. 31, what is the future of the A3+1, even though Gabon and Ghana are joining the Council in January? Brazil is also joining as a Latin American-Caribbean nation, replacing St. Vincent. At the beginning of this year, we were the new kids on the block; now we shall be the veterans because every other member of the [current] A3+1 will depart unless there’s some rapid Security Council reform in the next three months. Being part of the A3+1 has been a revelation. Anyone who watches the Council closely will know that even before we got on, I think this year especially, the influence of the A3+1 has grown; we are a factor that must be considered in most of the debates that matter the most to us. We may not be penholders on a specific file, but very few countries are willing to be seen to be openly opposed to the voice of Africa. That voice is captured by the A3+1 on the Council.
I have found it very collegial and patriotic and not the patriotism of a single country but a pan-Africanist feeling. It feels like the start of something exciting and powerful, to see us unite around issues and not just to react to other initiatives, but to propose them to drive the agenda forward. I think we’ve done that, and with the Caribbean [and Latin America] coming in [Brazil], I hope that they will continue in the same spirit, and I don’t doubt they will, because on the Council if you want to succeed as an elected member, you’ve got to have a card up your sleeve. So your best standing is somewhere in the middle [between the Council’s “established divisions”], and leverage opportunities to drive the agenda forward. But standing in the middle alone is quite a buffeting. So if you stand in the middle as Africa, you have the African Union behind you, a strong anchor. And when you have a strong anchor and you’re standing in the middle, you become a not inconsiderable force in the Council.
As for the A3+1, the “+1” is a historic plus one. What St. Vincent and the Grenadines has done is of historic nature. This is a country in the Caribbean, a member of Caricom [the Caribbean Community], that at the head of government level, the prime minister [Ralph Gonsalves] said that his foreign policy on this issue was to reflect and support the position of the African Union. This is a reflection of our shared African ancestry, and, of course, you know that the African world goes beyond Africa; it’s in the Americas here in the United States, in Central America. We have that sense of kinship because our separation is not voluntary. We’re not migrants, we were forced. And so that reaches deep into our cultural and psychological affiliation with one another. The African Union also has the African diaspora, which includes the Caribbean and the Americas as part of its sixth region. So what St. Vincent has done is to manifest at the very highest global level what the sixth region could mean. So we think there’ll be other “plus ones” in the future.
Head of State: Uhuru Kenyatta
Foreign Affairs Minister: Raychelle Omamo
Type of Government: Presidential republic
Year Kenya Joined the UN: 1963
Years in the Security Council: 1973-1974, 1997-1998, 2021-2022
Population: 52.57 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: African Development Bank Group, African Union, Group of 77 (G77), Commonwealth of Nations, World Trade Organization
CO2 emissions, 2019: 0.3 tons (world average, 4.7 tons per person; US: 16 tons; target for 2030 to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius limit: 2 tons)
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.