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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Who is Martin Griffiths, the British mediator bringing formidable experience to Yemen envoy role?

Profile: Martin Griffiths chosen by Antonio Guterres as new UN Yemen envoy

UN special envoy Martin Griffiths disembarks from a plane upon his arrival at Sanaa's international airport. AFP
UN special envoy Martin Griffiths disembarks from a plane upon his arrival at Sanaa's international airport. AFP

An experienced conflict mediator and veteran of the United Nations is set to take up the role of peace envoy to Yemen in the coming weeks.

Martin Griffiths is a former foreign office diplomat who has accumulated decades of experience in dealing with those involved in intractable confrontations around the planet. Most recently the 66-year old has served as an adviser to the UN's Syrian envoys between 2012 and 2014.

Inspired by the legacy of Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, Mr Griffiths helped launched Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva in 1999. As a result, Mr Giffiths was a behind the scenes player in international mediation efforts in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He worked at the centre for political dialogue, holding its top position from 1999 to 2010.

"He's a tough character who is very experienced in cloak and dagger talks," said one official who saw him at work a decade ago. "While he comes from a Foreign Office background, he is very comfortable in the United Nations and humanitarian circles. His experience is very impressive."

The UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, speaks to reporters in the rebel-held Capital Sanaa on March 24, 2018. Mr Griffiths continued his efforts to restart peace talks with a visit to Washington on April 18. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
The UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, speaks to reporters in the rebel-held Capital Sanaa on March 24, 2018. Mr Griffiths continued his efforts to restart peace talks with a visit to Washington on April 18. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Now blessed with a shock of silver hair and known for practising imaginary cricket strokes with plastic water bottles, Mr Griffiths has been described as an "actorish" figure in the corridors of diplomacy. He has explained that art of mediation is based on breakthroughs at the personal level. "It's all about, you know, you have a child, so do I. There is no more natural human bond than talking about your children," he told the author of the book Kings of Peace, Pawns of War.

Making connections through small coincidences is another key to success. He once asked President Abdurrahman Wajid of Indonesia why his centre had been chosen to mediate in the Aceh conflict. Mr Wajid replied told his British companion, he had two heroes, Florence Nightingale and Henry Dunant.

Currently the executive director of the Brussels-based European Institute of Peace, Mr Griffiths also works closely with Intermediate, the political dialogue charity founded by Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's chief of staff in 10 Downing St. Mr Powell took his experience of the Northern Ireland peace process and has advised governments and rebels around the world on peace building and conflict prevention.

The Welshman's career started at Unicef in South Asia but he said his first real job was as a diplomat in the British diplomatic service. He later worked for international aid agencies, such as Save the Children, and as the boss of Action Aid.

In 1994, he was appointed director of UN humanitarian affairs in Geneva and in 1998 became deputy to the UN emergency relief coordinator in New York. At the end of that decade, he gave a widely reported speech, formulating the theory of New Prevention. The approach proposed integrating humanitarian aid groups and human rights organisations into the political peace making process.

Officials hope that Mr Griffiths can give fresh impetus to efforts to forge political solutions in Yemen as well as expand humanitarian relief operations throughout the country.

Should all go to plan, he will take over as the new UN peace envoy to Yemen after Mauritania’s Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s term ends this month.

Mr Cheikh Ahmed announced in January that he would not stay as Yemen envoy beyond the end of his contract at the end of this month. He was appointed in April 2015.

In his letter recommending Mr Griffiths to the UN Security Council, Mr Guterres wrote in a letter that Mr Griffiths "brings extensive experience in conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation and humanitarian affairs”.

Council members have until 5pm in New York on Thursday to raise objections to the appointment of Mr Griffiths.

Having pioneered the private approach to peace-making that others emulated, Mr Griffiths stressed his diplomatic training underpins all that he does. "[I try] to work out what hindsight will later tell us what we should have done."

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