Illustration of a dove.

The fight for peace

For nearly 50 years, Martin Griffiths (AFRAS 1968) has worked on the frontline of humanitarian aid and mediated with leaders of the most-feared armed groups, from the Basque separatist organisation ETA to the Afghan Taliban. Now, as the United Nation’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, his experience and skill are stretched to the limit.

Martin Griffiths meets with community leaders and displaced people in Djibo, Burkina Faso, October 2022.

Martin Griffiths meets with community leaders and displaced people in Djibo, Burkina Faso, October 2022.

“It is an incredible privilege to do this,” says Martin Griffiths, speaking from his office in Geneva where he is based at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “Sometimes, you can do things that alleviate suffering. But it’s also an impossible job.”

The costs of humanitarian aid keep rising: $56 billion this year, up from $46 billion last year, is what’s needed to support more than 350 million people in 36 different countries, with many affected by war and conflict. For Martin, war has been “a constant reality”. He has witnessed the carnage of the Killing Fields of Cambodia, atrocities in apartheid South Africa, and brutalities in Gaza.

What has compelled him, as a civilian, to be in what most people regard as terrifying places and scenarios? “Dealing with terrorist organisations isn’t frightening because I’m not the enemy,” he rationalises. “They don’t feel threatened by me. In that sense, it’s not dangerous.

“The contrary answer, which is not often spoken about, is that I quite like the adrenaline of being in the middle of a shooting zone. It took me a long time to realise how wrong that was as a feeling.”

Born in Sri Lanka in 1951, Martin’s personal mission to bring about peace stemmed from his early experience of the Indo-China war which raged around him. Later, at his Quaker boarding school in England, he organised a “ludicrous” anti-war protest in Reading. At Sussex, where he arrived in 1968 to study in the school of African and Asian Studies (AFRAS), he protested outside the army recruitment centre in Brighton.

Although he had been attracted to Sussex because it was “radical, progressive and interested in the world”, and because, as part of his degree, he was able to study Hinduism and Buddhism and understand more about the continent of his birth, he remembers his pacifism didn’t fit with the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Students’ Union at the time.

“I was with the right-wingers, sort of,” he jokes. “But I’m grateful that Sussex took hold of me and made me challenge things, including the Left. I was forced to think quite a lot about other parts of the world.”

He began his humanitarian experience with children’s charity UNICEF, and was originally offered a posting in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the heart of the Indo-China war before it turned out to be too dangerous and was cancelled. He was instead sent to Laos – a more remote region of the conflict – where he worked in rural education, building schools “until the militia arrived overnight.”

Martin left soon after, returning to London where he trained as a barrister. Following a stint as a lawyer in Oregon in the United States, he soon realised he was bored “and not a very good lawyer.” He decided to reapproach UNICEF, who offered him the role of assistant administrative goods supply officer in Sri Lanka: “The land of my birth. I was delighted!"

He spent five years in the posting, during which time Sri Lanka entered a war. “I was sent to the Thai-Cambodian border in 1975, right at the beginning of the Killing Fields operation, which was a fantastic opportunity to learn,” he says.

Seeing the other person’s point of view isn’t popular anymore. We are losing our sense of moral purpose.”

Martin’s long career – which encompasses being the UN’s special envoy to Yemen, six years with the Foreign Office, senior positions with Save the Children and Action Aid, and helping to launch the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva in 1999 – has given him unparalleled experience in conflict mediation and resolution. He is interested in the psychology of terrorists – their character, motives and emotions – and how hardship can move people from one position to another.

“It’s understanding the otherness of their worlds,” he says. “When you’re labelled a terrorist and you think you are a freedom fighter, you live in a separate universe. You can’t take out a bank account. You can’t buy a car, so you steal one.”

As a humanitarian, while he has never lost his sense of outrage at seeing children dying in field hospitals, he says it’s important for mediators to not take political sides. “You deal with people who have done terrible things and who will probably do more, but it’s not a mediator’s job to hold them to account. This can present a moral dilemma for some.”

Martin is also shocked that armed conflict seems to be the first choice when disputes flare up. “Seeing the other person’s point of view isn’t popular anymore. And since the two big-beast conflicts of Ukraine and then Gaza, we are losing our sense of moral purpose.”

More frightening still is that, while wars are costly, climate disasters are bringing about more child displacement and will “make a mockery” of closing the funding gap. Now in his 70s, he has plans to reform how the UN’s aid is organised and delivered, giving more agency to those in need. His priority remains seeking peaceful resolution.

“I have tried to imbue in people and colleagues the values of distance and of kindness to people who are not acting either way,” he says. “It’s the business of empathy and listening, but it’s doing so with a certain amount of dispassion so that it doesn’t become about you.”

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