Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths to take on top UN humanitarian job

Yemen special envoy, Martin Griffiths, is to take on the role of UN humanitarian relief coordinator, succeeding another British diplomat, Mark Lowcock, in a move that may mark a reset in the stalled peace process in Yemen.

Griffiths was not the official British candidate but his confirmation in the role means the UK will have kept hold of a posting that has gone to British figures for more than a decade.

There had been speculation the post might go to Sweden due to the UK’s cuts to its overseas aid programme, but Britain is a permanent member of the security council and remains one of the largest humanitarian donors.

The role of undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs is one of five cabinet-level UN jobs that are traditionally held by nationals from the five permanent members of the security council. 中国, 法国, 俄罗斯, the UK and the US have a monopoly on the top UN jobs overseeing economic development, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism and political affairs. Moves to open these jobs more widely have failed so far.

The official UK candidate Nick Dyer, the UK special envoy for famine and a former permanent secretary at the Department for International Development, was not offered the posting, one of the most high profile at the UN. Caroline Kende-Robb, a former secretary-general of Care International, was also in contention before Griffiths’s appointment.

Lowcock, the outgoing coordinator, was in his final months openly critical of British aid cuts, saying the UK was seeking to balance its books on the backs of the starving in Yemen.

Griffiths’ three-year period as special envoy to Yemen started brightly with an agreement signed over the future control of the port of Hodeidah, the critical artery for the transfer of aid into the country, but the agreement was never fully implemented, and as time passed he struggled to secure agreement from Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels over moving to a wider power-sharing agreement.

Diplomacy has in the last year been stalled by the Houthis’ belief that they could take the strategic governorate of Marib, making the peace process less relevant.

Houthi negotiators refused to meet Griffiths last week in Muscat, Oman, but his allies say this was not the reason for his departure. They said that as his frustrations grew, he had thought for a few months that the natural time for his departure was imminent.

The US under Joe Biden has taken a greater interest in Yemen, appointing its own special envoy in Tim Lenderking. The robust White House staffer responsible for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, has also taken a hands-on role, but so far the US has found no effective leverage to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table.

Saudi Arabia has also held back from fully lifting its partial blockade of Hodeidah port and Sana’a airport, arguing that the Houthis have to agree to wider talks as part of this process.

Griffiths is expected to stay in post until his successor is found, with the effort to end the six-year civil war in Yemen regarded as so important that a vacuum cannot be left. The UN special envoy role in Libya was left open for months after the departure of Ghassan Salamé as countries rowed over who his successor should be, but more progress to peace in Libya was made during the interim role of Stephanie Williams.

Griffiths, 66, has had a long career as peace mediator but will need to find a language and diplomatic skills to persuade more national donors to be more generous, with many humanitarian pledging conferences falling far short of what is required.