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U.N Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield Discusses Humanitarian Crises Worldwide

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden, like many U.S. leaders before him, says he wants to solve more of the world's problems through international cooperation. Now, getting that done will fall partly to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Humanitarian crises in Ethiopia and Syria are high on her list. The Ethiopian government declared a temporary cease-fire with the Tigray People's Liberation Front earlier this week. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the Tigray region of Ethiopia since last November, and hundreds of thousands of people there are near famine. I asked Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield what the U.S. thinks needs to be done and who needs to do it.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We want all sides to commit to an indefinite cease-fire. We want all sides to agree to allowing full humanitarian access to address the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who are being impacted by this and people who are on the verge of famine. We want the violence to stop. There are credible reports that security forces denied medical personnel access to the victims of the recent attack on the market. There are credible reports of women being raped and abused. All of that must end now.

And who should act? First, it is the Ethiopian authorities on the ground who should deal with this. But I also think there is an important role for us to play here in New York at the Security Council.

KING: You have been pushing for an open U.N. Security Council session on Ethiopia. The Security Council, as I understand it, has held six closed sessions. You have said, what are we afraid of? What are we trying to hide? What will an open session accomplish that's not happening right now?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first, an open session would signal to the victims that the world has not forgotten them, that we are paying attention to what is happening in Ethiopia. And then I think for the authorities on the ground, for those individuals who are involved in the fighting, they need to hear the concerns that we have. They need to hear our messages that they need to cease and desist. And we particularly send that strong message to the Eritreans who are on the ground, that they too have to return to their own borders.

KING: Is it the position of the Biden administration that the Ethiopian government is committing war crimes in Tigray? This accusation has been raised by, among others, the UN's refugee agency.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We're assessing the situation on the ground. We know that war crimes have been committed. We know that serious violations of human rights have been committed. We know that sexual violence against women has occurred. What we need to do is stop the violence. We need to ensure that humanitarian assistance is being given to those most in need.

KING: It sounds like you're saying the Biden administration is acknowledging that war crimes have been committed. Can you tell me what kind of investigation will be done or is being done to determine who may be committing war crimes in Ethiopia?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I know that investigations are being completed. The Human Rights Commission - we're waiting for their report. But I think we have made very, very clear statements on the situation in Ethiopia - that we do see war crimes being committed, and we will be investigating who will be held accountable for those war crimes, and we will look for accountability.

KING: OK. President Biden has often said his administration is committed to ending forever wars while continuing to pursue humanitarian causes through other means. If we look at a place like Ethiopia, what do other means mean? What does that look like?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: In terms of how we address the situation on the ground?

KING: Yes.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think it's engaging with the parties on the ground to push them to the negotiating table to address the root causes of conflict taking place in these countries. And the root causes can be many. They can be man-made. They can come from leadership issues. But some of the root causes are a consequence of climate change and environmental conditions on the ground. It's a consequence of poverty and lack of opportunity. So all of those issues need to be addressed as we look for ways to move toward a peaceful solution to situations around the world.

KING: I want to ask you now about Syria, a very complex situation. Millions of displaced Syrians are relying on aid that comes through a single narrow border crossing from Turkey into Syria. The US wants that crossing to stay open so that people can get help, but it needs the U.N. Security Council to continue to authorize for it to stay open past July 10. Russia indicates it does not want that reauthorization. Essentially, Russia wants that border crossing closed. How does the U.S. plan to negotiate with Russia on this very pressing problem?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, we're negotiating in the Security Council to impress upon them how life-threatening closing the border is. We want to see humanitarian assistance continue to be provided to the Syrian people. And so the council is currently involved in negotiations to reauthorize the current border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, that I visited a few weeks ago but also to reinstate the other two crossings that were closed. For millions of Syrians, this is their literal lifeline.

KING: If Russia opposes keeping that border crossing open, though, is there anything that the U.S. or the U.N. can do? Russia has veto power on the Security Council.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They do. And we are hopeful that the Russians will see that it is not necessary to use their veto power in this particular case. The people of Syria need humanitarian assistance, and it is our hope that the Russian government will hear not just the voices of the members of the Security Council but they will hear the voices of millions of Syrians who will be calling upon the Security Council to act in this case.

KING: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Thank you so much for being with us today.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Noel, thank you very much. And I look forward to engaging with you in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "I JUST WANT TO BE YOUR EVERYTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.