Martin Griffiths Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

In March this year, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the appointment of veteran British diplomat Martin Griffiths as his Special Envoy for Yemen. In taking up this challenging position, Griffiths succeeded Esmail Ould Shaikh Ahmad of Mauritania, who ultimately failed in his mission to end the war in Yemen. By the time Ahmad quit the scene, the war had gone on for three years.

Now, as the war approaches its fourth anniversary, Griffiths is in the midst of making what is so far the most hopeful attempt to end it. Representatives from Yemen’s warring sides sat in the same room in Sweden on Thursday as UN-sponsored peace talks for the war-torn Arab country got underway.

Griffiths said the coming days were a milestone and urged the parties not to “waver ... let us work in good faith ... to deliver a message of peace”.

Griffiths announced the sides have agreed on a prisoner exchange as a first step toward building confidence. He said both sides have signalled they were serious about de-escalating the fighting through calls they’ve made in recent weeks, and urged them to work to further reduce the violence in the Arab world’s poorest nation, scene of massive civilians suffering. “I’m also pleased to announce the signing of an agreement on the exchange of prisoners, detainees, the missing, the forcibly detained and individuals placed under house arrest,” Griffiths said. 
“It will allow thousands of families to be reunited, and it is product of very effective, active work from both delegations.”

Sources close to the talks say the UN envoy will push for further confidence-building steps from both sides in Sweden.

They include ending Al Houthi siege of the south-western city of Taiz, the alliance’s reopening of the rebel-controlled Sana’a airport, and heading off an all-out offensive in Hodeida as well as facilitating humanitarian aid deliveries in the country, they said.

The diplomat has been widely praised for his untiring efforts so far. In September this year, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash tweeted: “UN envoy Martin Griffiths deserves special praise. His enthusiasm & drive made these talks possible. Coalition’s use of legitimate military force always intended to support political solution & UNSCR [UN Security Council] 2216. Long way to go. But Geneva can bring outcome nearer.”

Unfortunately for Griffiths — and for Yemen — that attempt to hold peace talks was abandoned on September 8, after three days of waiting for the Al Houthi movement’s delegation, but the untiring envoy vowed to press ahead with diplomacy.

Three-quarters of Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid and 8.4 million people are on the brink of starvation.

“There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that this economic issue is now the overwhelmingly most important priority,” Griffiths told Reuters in an interview. “Within the UN we’re talking about the need for such a master plan ... an immediate set of measures over weeks which the World Bank, IMF [International Monetary Fund], UN agencies, the Gulf obviously, the government of Yemen could come together to discuss,” he said.

Conflict resolution

Born in 1951, he is married and has two children. Griffiths holds a master’s degree in Southeast Asian studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and he is a noted barrister.

He has extensive experience in conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation and humanitarian affairs. Since 2014, he has served as the first executive director of the European Institute of Peace. Between 2012 and 2014, he served as an adviser to three special envoys of the secretary-general for Syria, and Deputy Head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria. From 1999 to 2010, Griffiths was the founding Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, where he specialised in developing political dialogue between governments and insurgents in a range of countries across Asia, Africa and Europe.

He also worked in the British diplomatic service and for various international humanitarian organisations, including the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), Save the Children and Action Aid. In 1994, he served in Geneva as the director of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, which preceded the establishment of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. From 1998 to 1999, he served as Deputy to the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator in New York. He has also served as UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Great Lakes and in the Balkans.

He is a field leader in mediation and negotiation in conflict situations, having specialised in developing dialogue between governments and insurgents. He has helped lay the foundations for peace in a range of countries across Asia and Africa.

When he took up his position, Griffiths had told the UN: “In my experience of trying to resolve conflicts, I have learnt to take people at their word. To trust- yes — but also to verify. We should take on trust the assurances we hear even as we know that the ultimate test is what they will deliver in practice. So when I hear positive words from one leader or another, often instantly the cause of derision and scepticism from the other side, my line is: let us take these good words and put them to good use.”

It is to be hoped that his faith will be rewarded in Sweden.