As most of the world’s superpowers continue to impose sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Britain says it will double-down on its effort to call out Russia by ensuring it does not continue to misuse its position as a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council.
“And we’re very determined that we don’t allow Russia to get away with abusing the Council for its misinformation,” said James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy permanent representative to the UN. “We will be focusing on laying bare Russian lies, exposing their isolation, and rallying UN support.”
Kariuki spoke to PassBlue by Zoom in late March, as his country prepared to assume the rotating presidency of the Council in April.
Britain, like the United States, has imposed an array of sanctions on Russia to try to force President Putin to halt his war in Ukraine. As part of the sanctions packages, Britain has so far banned Russia’s vital industries and companies from raising finance in London’s money markets; stopped Russian banks, state and private companies from borrowing billions of pounds from British lenders; strengthened trade restrictions by hitting Russia’s electronics, telecom and aerospace industries; and banned all Russians from keeping significant savings in British bank accounts.
Observers say, however, that Britain’s capacity to weigh down Russia’s economy more substantially is stumped by the European Union’s high dependence on Moscow for gas supplies. The bloc of 27 countries relies on the Kremlin for 40 percent of its energy needs. Britain’s energy dependence is less than four percent on Russia’s gas, but Britain can’t cut off its reliance completely.
With Putin’s war pressuring gas flows, prices of essential commodities have soared globally, making the diplomatic community, including those in Britain, weary of fully restricting Russia’s gas flow. The European Union is already searching for alternatives to Russian fuel, aiming to shrink Moscow’s access to the global market for the foreseeable future. Lithuania, for one, has announced it has ended its reliance on Russian gas.
That isolationist policy is what Kariuki says the Council will be reinforcing during Britain’s stewardship in April. Despite this intention, the Council could easily continue to function under the haze of Russia’s misinformation this month and beyond, given its veto power. Kariuki himself acknowledges “there isn’t a straightforward way around Russia’s veto.”
On April 5, a Security Council meeting on Ukraine — focusing on the recent allegations of a massacre in Bucha — Russia denied that its troops had any role in the murders, calling the discovery of dead bodies throughout the city “staged.” The meeting was especially contentious because President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine spoke live by video link to the members, accusing Russia of raping and murdering innocent people in Ukraine, among other atrocities.
“I think the best way around the Russian veto is for Russia to be isolated, for Russia to understand it doesn’t have support,” Kariuki added. That, he noted, has been demonstrated twice in major UN bodies last month. First, a March 2 General Assembly resolution condemned its invasion of Ukraine and a March 24 resolution demanding that humanitarian aid gets into Ukraine. Russia could not use its veto in the Assembly, and both resolutions were adopted by a vast majority of UN member states.
Kariuki is uncertain if the UN could have stopped Putin from invading Ukraine, but he is optimistic that the range of economic and military sanctions, as well as the attempts to isolate Russia, will prevent other countries with similar hostilities toward another sovereign country from making encroachments.
As Mark Seddon, a journalist and former UN speechwriter who founded a UN studies program at the University of Buckingham, said: “My own view is that Russia has behaved against the UN Charter, it’s an absolute breach of the UN Charter, it’s acting illegally, there may well be war crimes taking place that have got to be investigated.”
What Russia is doing, he added, “as a member of the Security Council is simply inexcusable, unforgivable, but at the same time, there really isn’t a mechanism, I don’t think, for removing a permanent member from the Security Council.”
Kariuki says his country does not want to forget other crises happening elsewhere on the globe. The UK will spend April 13 tackling the challenge of bringing charges against people who commit sexual assault in conflict-ridden territories, he said.
“So, we will have two signature events, one on conflict-related sexual violence, which is about holding to account the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict,” Kariuki said. The UN has been largely unsuccessful in bringing charges against individual peacekeepers and national contingents who violate women and girls since the first reports began surfacing in 1992. It consistently maintains that prosecutions for sexual abuse and violence are a national responsibility — that of the government of an accused peacekeeper or peacekeeping contingent.
The UN started publishing data on offenders and providing support to identified victims in 2015. Its 2022 edition of the report on “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse” was colored, as in many previous years, by allegations implicating UN personnel. Although Kariuki said he has not had time to study the fine print of the report, he said his team hopes to drive the conversation forward this month.
The second signature event for Britain is also situated around conflict zones. Kariuki said the Security Council under his country’s leadership, with Ambassador Barbara Woodward at the helm, will work on increasing access to Covid-19 vaccines in fragile countries and regions like Mali and the Sahel, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Yemen.
“I think now there’s wider access to vaccines generally, across the developing world,” he said of the April 11 event. “But we need to turn those vaccines into vaccinations. And that means enabling populations in conflict-affected countries access to vaccines.” (Pertaining to Covid-19, the BBC announced on April 12 that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his finance minister, Rishi Sunak, will be fined for violating pandemic lockdown rules by holding parties.)
With constant cross-border militant attacks from northern Uganda against the Congo and multiple non-state actors committing violence in the country, the two nations are hard places for humanitarian aid delivery or vaccination distribution to occur. It is a similar story in Yemen, where United States-backed Saudi Arabian shelling and Iran-supported Houthi rebels have decimated the country in the last eight years. A two-month Ramadan truce was declared recently and is said to be holding. The Yemen government and rival factions make a play for the humanitarian aid that gets into the country, media reports say. It is no surprise, then, that the vaccination drive in Yemen has reached less than four percent of the population, according to Kariuki’s figures.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as their countries assume the rotating presidency of the Security Council. This year so far, the column reported on Norway, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. To hear an analysis with more details on Britain’s Council presidency and insights from Seddon of University of Buckingham, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Damilola Banjo and Kacie Candela, on Patreon or SoundCloud. (Excerpts are included in the interview below.)
Britain’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN: James Kariuki
Deputy Ambassador to UN Since: August 2021
Education: Jesus College, Cambridge (1992)
His story, briefly: Ambassador Kariuki served as multilateral policy director at Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) from 2018 to 2021, before becoming deputy permanent representative of Britain last year. In his role in the foreign office, he was responsible for creating policy on the UN and the multilateral system, human rights and sanctions. Before that, he was director of diplomacy of 20:20, a foreign ministry program, from 2016 to 2018. He was head of policy planning and deputy director for Europe in the foreign office, and deputy director at the National Economic Council Secretariat (Cabinet-level offices) during the 2008 financial crisis.
Kariuki was born to a Kenyan father and a British mother. He grew up in Britain and joined the foreign service in the mid-1990s. His career has taken him to Iraq, Venezuela, Washington and now New York City, where he lives with his family. In Baghdad, Kariuki worked for the UN, on loan, to the weapons inspection team. He describes himself as “a bit of a UN junkie,” having done multilateral diplomacy for about 25 years. He loves the city, he said, and is excited to be back again. He initially served at the British mission to the UN from 2002 to 2007.
“This is a great place to be, it’s a fantastic job,” he said. “It’s an honor to be the DPR in the UK mission, a country that has got so much to offer. But it’s also a fantastic city to live in. And I’m trying to find a little bit of time amongst the work to enjoy the city as well.”
Kariuki spoke to PassBlue in late March. His comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.
PassBlue: Do you think that the UN did enough diplomatically to try to prevent President Putin’s assault on Ukraine? It’s very difficult when one large country, especially a permanent member, especially one that has nuclear weapons, makes an act of aggression against a neighbor. We — the UK, the US, other countries — saw this coming, we called it out, we tried to prevent it, but it was very hard for people [to think] that Russia would go as far as it has. People thought it was a negotiating tactic. In the end, this is a war of Russia’s choice. And I don’t think anything we could have done was going to stop that decision from being taken. We did everything we could to prevent the conflict. And we will continue to do what we can to try to stop it.
PassBlue: Do you think there’s a way to stop such a war from happening again? I think at the moment Russia is paying a very heavy price for this invasion. It miscalculated the extent of Ukrainian resistance. So it’s paying a price on the battlefields. It’s paying a huge economic price in terms of the sanctions that have been brought to bear on Russia. And it’s paying a reputational price because it is isolated internationally. So I think if anyone else were thinking of doing something like this, that’s a pretty clear signal to them that when you invade neighboring countries, you don’t get welcomed with open arms. The biggest price has been paid by the Ukrainian people, but there is also a price being paid by Russian families losing their loved ones on the battlefield, Russian people who are paying economic flows domestically and being suppressed when they try to protest against this war.
PassBlue: Away from Ukraine and Russia, but on an equally important topic: climate change. The UN climate panel recently released a report saying that almost half the world’s population is vulnerable to worsening climate, and that there is only a brief window to take drastic action to stop this. Will Britain take up this matter in the Security Council in April? We don’t have a specific item on climate in this presidency. It was the main theme in our presidency last year. You may recall that Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson presided over a climate security discussion during Britain’s last presidency, part of the yearlong buildup to the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November. I was personally involved in the very first climate debate in the Security Council, in 2007. So we have a long history of supporting this agenda. In December, when a resolution was brought to the Council, we were strong supporters and co-sponsors, which was vetoed by Russia.
PassBlue: China, another permanent member in the Security Council, has repeatedly stated its neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war, and considering Beijing’s economic and social ties to Russia, what is Britain’s standpoint on China’s position? China has an important relationship with Russia, there is no denying that. But it’s also a country that has a lot of important relationships around the world, and its economic ties to the rest of the world are much more important than its economic relationship with Russia. When the first resolution on Russia’s aggression was passed, China abstained. I think that shows that they’re not completely aligned with Russia, they’re quite uncomfortable. They’re a country that believes in territorial integrity and sovereignty. So I think our conversations with the Chinese will bring this point out, but also other countries, developing countries, who are worried about large neighbors who might attack them, and middle-income countries who are uncomfortable about the impact of the war. There’s a big community out there who have a relationship with China.
PassBlue: What are your standpoints on Jamaicans’ call for reparations from Britain? There is no disputing the horrors of what occurred during the slave trade and in the colonial periods. And while we as the UK acknowledge that the wounds run very deep, we believe the most effective way for the UK today to be able to respond to the cruelty of the past, is to ensure that current and future generations do not forget what happened and to address modern-day slavery and racism. So we have been at the forefront of the fight against modern slavery. And we’re very cognizant of the current history that is reflected by slavery.
Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister: Boris Johnson
Foreign Affairs Minister: Liz Truss
Type of Government: Constitutional monarchy headed by the prime minister
Year Britain Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the permanent-five members (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the US)
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 2019 are (in tons): 6 (the US, in comparison: 16)
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.