By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - An African bid to postpone the International Criminal Court trials of Kenya's president and his deputy failed at the United Nations on Friday, which Kenya called a humiliation for Africa.
The African Union had requested that the U.N. Security Council defer the cases against Uhuru Kenyatta and his number two, William Ruto, for one year to allow them to deal with the aftermath of an attack by al Qaeda-linked Somali militants.
But the 15-member Security Council was split - seven members, including Russia and China, voted in favor, and eight abstained, including France, the United States and Britain. Resolutions need nine votes and no vetoes to pass. Britain, France, the United States, China and Russia hold veto powers.
Kenya, a key partner in the West's fight against militant Islam in Somalia, said the outcome highlighted the need for reform of the security council to prevent a few powerful nations imposing their will on the world.
Kenyatta and Ruto are accused of fomenting ethnic violence after Kenya's 2007 elections, in which 1,200 people died. Both deny the charges and have tried to have the cases adjourned or halted. Ruto's trial began last month, while Kenyatta's trial is due to start on February 5 after being delayed for a third time.
In a statement, Kenya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said those who abstained showed "clear cowardice in the face of a critical African matter."
The African Union had made its request to the Security Council with the stability and security of the continent in mind, the ministry said.
"But the Security Council has failed to do this and humiliated the continent and its leadership," it said.
At least 67 people were killed in the Nairobi mall attack in September, the worst attack on Kenyan soil since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998.
Rwandan U.N. Ambassador Eugene Gasana, who led the push for a resolution, said: "Let it be written today in history that the Security Council failed Kenya and Africa on this issue."
The Kenyan cases have stirred an African backlash against the ICC Court and sparked claims that the Security Council does not take Africa seriously enough.
African states put the resolution to a vote knowing it would fail.
"It has been insinuated that not joining the vote that favors the resolution is somehow an expression of ill will towards the African Union," said Guatemalan U.N. Ambassador Gert Rosenthal. "We find this view frankly offensive."
British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant noted that the United Nations supports over 100,000 peacekeepers in Africa.
Western and Latin American council members believe the African concerns should be dealt with at the ICC and at a meeting this month of the Assembly of States Parties, which is made up of the 122 court members.
An Ipsos Synovate poll of 2,060 Kenyans showed on Thursday that 42 percent believe the ICC cases should continue, two percent thought they should be deferred, while almost a third wanted the trials dropped completely.
"We believe that justice for the victims of that violence is critical to the country's long-term peace and security. It is incumbent on us all to support accountability for those responsible for crimes against humanity," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told the council.
Concerns had been raised by some council members that a deferral could lead to impunity. But Ethiopia's U.N. Ambassador Tekeda Alemu said the notion Africa tolerated impunity was the mantra of those who treated Africans as unequals. Ethiopia is currently chair of the African Union.
The Security Council can defer ICC action for one year under Article 16 of the Rome Statute that established The Hague-based court a decade ago.
Seven of the members who abstained are ICC members - France, Britain, Guatemala, Argentina, South Korea, Australia and Luxembourg. The United States is not a member. The seven who voted yes are not court members - China, Russia, Togo, Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Morocco and Pakistan.
Kenyan U.N. Ambassador Macharia Kamau said after the vote that Africa's engagement at the Security Council had been met with "derision, suspicion, impatience and even irritation" and that Africa now believed that the body was not the destination for solving complex and fluid security and political problems.
"At every turn the boogie man of impunity and dictatorship is dragged out to devastating effect. This is wrong, and it is unfair, as it is sad and tragic," Kamau said.
The U.N. Security Council turned down a previous deferral request by Kenya in 2011 and rejected a request in May for the cases to be terminated because the council had no such power.
(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Nairobi; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)