Extracts from Awake at Night podcast: Interview with Martin Griffiths

26 Nov 2020

Extracts from Awake at Night podcast: Interview with Martin Griffiths

Melissa Fleming  00:01

From the United Nations. I'm Melissa Fleming and this is Awake at Night. My guest this week is Martin Griffiths, the Secretary General's Special Envoy for Yemen, a country that has been devastated by civil war, and which is experiencing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises with famine, very little medical care. And now the coronavirus pandemic, Martin, this is not an easy job you have. Tell me about it. What is a special envoy to Yemen? What are you supposed to do?

Martin Griffiths  00:36

Very simply put, the job is to make sure the parties to that war, the parties to that conflict and the chance to settle the differences, obviously through negotiation dialogue. So I see myself as a mediator brought in to mediate on behalf the United Nations, of course, on behalf of the Security Council, and the task of a mediator is, I think, a complicated one, because it's not my conflict. I'm not from Yemen. It's our conflict, because it has such dramatic consequences, not only for the people of Yemen, more broadly. But the job of a mediator, I think, is to infuse hope into people to say there can be a solution to this, to come up with ideas as to how they might resolve their inevitable differences. And to give some kind of sense of vision to the people of Yemen, that this doesn't need to go on indefinitely, because, as you know, in a war, it seems endless to those living through it. While their children don't go to school, they are displaced and disrupted. There seems no possible. And I think what we do in the United Nations, and in the job that I have, is to try to give people a sense, there is another way, there's a way out of this, and that their leaders need to take it.

Melissa Fleming  02:04

And so if you were to talk to the people of Yemen, who are exhausted by this horrific war, who are facing multiple challenges, including hunger, and now the Coronavirus, what would you say to them at this point in time?

Martin Griffiths  02:21

I'd say to them that it's time to call it off. It's time to stop this now. It's time for them and us and the international community to step up and say to their leaders, both parties, knock it off now stop this, it doesn't need to go on. And the second thing I think we would say is, we cannot afford to let it go on the humanitarian prospect. For Yemen. It's getting much worse with a looming famine, which because of COVID, we can't afford to fund the programme to protect the people. So, it'll get worse, unless with some urgency the leaders decide to do the right thing. That's what I would say. So, come together and be champions for Yemen.

Melissa Fleming  03:20

What are the factors that are leading to this famine? And what do you think about when you see that something this dramatic is looming for the people of Yemen?

Martin Griffiths  03:29

Well, the first thing, I think, is that it's avoidable. This is not the first time we've been facing this in Yemen. The last few years, we have been facing it, and due to very, very effective humanitarian aid it was headed off. This time, the prospects are much dimmer. We need a ceasefire. We need to open up the country, to the humanitarian aid to medicines, to reconstruction of health services now, particularly, of course.

Melissa Fleming  04:04

Absolutely. And it must be something that that drives you also in your mediation efforts, knowing that whether you succeed will determine whether humanitarian aid can enter, aid workers can reach the people who are suffering and dying.

Martin Griffiths  04:22

It's a real impulse, you know, we get a lot of reminders that we need to do our job, we need to make it happen. And there was a vivid example in Yemen, of exactly what you say two years ago, when there was a prospect of a battle for the city and ports of Hodeidah on the Red Sea. And these are ports, which are the direct entry point for that world's largest humanitarian aid programme that keeps people Yemen alive and the prospect was a battle which would have devastating consequences for the people in the city. But also rupture the humanitarian pipeline. So, we all work very hard to stop it and it was stopped. And it was stopped through a whole different set of conditions and alliances. Right in the front was the humanitarian community, internationally actually, strongly advocating that this should not happen. And behind that diplomacy, which allowed us then to work with the two parties to call a ceasefire, and to stop the battle, and it worked. But that's two years ago. And we can see it fraying and shredding and we can see it coming back. So, it's a reminder of why we need to not waste a single day.

Melissa Fleming  07:16

Dare I ask you, then, what keeps you awake at night?

Martin Griffiths  07:21

I hope you have to, I'm often accused actually. And I think not unfairly, or being too optimistic, you have to have hope. What I found in mediation is that I've done this now for about 20 years or more, that 90% of your efforts fail, it's not a thing to put your money into, you know, 90% of your initiatives don't work out as you would like them to do. And what that means is a couple of things. First of all, always have a fullback, never get into a cul de sac, always find a way round, so that you can proceed with another way of approaching things. And secondly, don't rapine when things go wrong. Your job, my job is to keep moving and to keep trying. So, 90% of things going wrong is a real, it's a real wake up at night problem. Yeah, it really is. But then you're lucky to have a chance to do something about a war.

Melissa Fleming  08:24

You talk a lot about empathy as a really important ingredient in mediation. How important is empathy in your work?

Martin Griffiths  08:36

I think it's central to mediation in particular, of course, it's very important in many other activities in the UN system in the world. But in mediation, it's particularly central, I think, because what a mediator has to do, of course, is to put her or himself into the minds of the leaders in war and try to figure out why they're doing certain things. And perhaps more importantly, try to imagine how they might do something differently, how they might actually do the right thing at last. And empathy is the only way to give you half a chance of that imaginative endeavour working. And because, in my experience, the people who lead wars are not like you and me, they are different to us. I've had a lot to do with insurgent groups in many different parts of the world. For many, many years. People who run insurgent groups have made a decision in life which is not like mine or others. They are different and trying to see where they are coming from and try to see what would appeal to them is what I think a mediator has to do. So, if you're not interested in empathy, stay home.

Melissa Fleming  09:58

I guess we all associate empathy with something positive. Like, when you empathize with somebody, you try to get inside their feelings, but you're trying to get inside the head of a warlord often or somebody who is a perpetrator of some of the worst war crimes. So, in this case, how would you describe that term? I mean, it must be hard for you to feel empathy in the classic sense of the word.

Martin Griffiths  10:25

I know what you mean, I think I'd like to think I'm not quite the same as some of the people we work with in terms of warlords, but I once had the opportunity to mediate between the Spanish government and a Basque terrorist group ETA. And in that experience, I had the opportunity to spend quite a lot of time with people who had been terrorists, listed terrorists for many years, and tried to understand them, and to see where they are like you and me, even though they're responsible for terrible crimes. And what I have found over and over and over again, is that the basic human condition, the basic human things that we share, children, parenthood, aspirations for better life, those things which are universal, which has nothing to do with an individual culture that exists right through into the kind of people that we're talking about, into warlords. And I remember spending a lot of time with one of the founders of ETA, who had been a terrorist for 25 years or so. And trying to learn from him what it meant to his daily life. The fact that he had not seen his family, of course, because we're here to visit his family to be picked up by the police, all the sorts of things that we don't imagine. He said, “why are you stopping me robbing banks as the only way I can get money?” And I said, well, you know, we're trying to stop this thing. So just putting yourself in the mind of somebody like that. I mean, it's a nightmare. In some ways. It's not the empathy, as you say that you're describing. It's a feat of imagination. The bridge can be made, because we are all basically have many things in common.

Melissa Fleming  12:20

We're all human, and some people turn in the wrong direction. And your goal, as I hear it, then of using empathy is to persuade, trying to convince leaders of war to become leaders of peace, what would be your pitch to one of them?

Martin Griffiths  12:41

I would say, the misery of the people of your region has continued for 35 years. What are you seeking to achieve? What is it that you want to achieve? And they answered, we want the people of the Basque region to have the right to decide their future. And then you cost you work for that. It we see it the same in Yemen, we see it in other conflicts, you try to find a way to meet the aspirations of this leader, but to see it realized, or perhaps changed by circumstance, when he thinks about the misery of the people that is that other suffers due to his actions. Very rarely have I found people to be unfeeling, ultimately about the tragedy that they see around them. So the tragedy of war, as you said earlier, is a  spur is a valuable, essential spur, to get people to do the right thing, to get people to do the difficult thing, which is to walk away from war. And it requires a certain, which is very difficult, I think, a certain sense of being able to say to the people who died in that struggle in that war, that they didn't die for nothing, which is not easy sometimes. But providing a narrative that allows the leaders to say, we can pursue our aims without fighting. That's what we have to provide.

Melissa Fleming  14:18

You said that you're a mediator, and you're not a negotiator, and that the parties need to negotiate with each other rather than you in Yemen, coming back to Yemen. Are the parties doing this? And do you see any hope?

Martin Griffiths  14:32

The problem that we face now is that because of the lockdown because of the virus, negotiation has become virtual. And you miss the essential human chemistry, that empathy that we're talking about, to make the connection between the parties. And the result of this is that we become the negotiator because we negotiate with each party, we bring back a solution from one party and place it in front of the other. And that party says, Well, I don't like what you've given me. And I'm saying, well, it's not me, it's the other party. That easily gets lost, the parties need to realize that I'm not the problem. The parties need to realize they have to talk to each other. And we had a recent example of this, which I think was very moving. Few weeks ago, we managed despite COVID, despite all that, to bring the two parties together in Switzerland, to negotiate the release of prisoners. There are many, many prisoners in any conflict, Yemen is no different, as you know. And in this case, after about a week of hard, caustic or through angry negotiation across the table between those two parties, physically across the table from each other, they agreed to the release of about 1050 people. ICRC, our partners in this told us it is the biggest release of prisoners in ICRC’s experience during war, since the Korean War, is a massive achievement, massive achievement in the middle of an angry conflict. And one of the reasons why it happened, I believe, is because they sat down and talk to each other. I firmly believe this is not idle optimism. But I firmly believe that if we can get them to sit down opposite each other, in the coming weeks, they will agree to a nationwide ceasefire in opening up the country, they will agree that finally we can start the road to peace. So, the prospect is real. They need to understand that they have to sit down opposite each other. That's the task that is at hand for me now.

Melissa Fleming  18:08

When you're mediating for peace in Yemen, are you thinking about the people? Do you have any individuals in mind in your head that you're that you're reflecting on or in these stories that keep you fueled?

Martin Griffiths  18:24

You know, I do think that humanitarian workers have a luckier than the rest of us in the sense that they really deal upfront, and close and personal, with the daily misery that they're treating, they're doing something about. And when I was involved in humanitarian programmes in the field, and then distant, I've always tried to make sure that I had the opportunity to go to some of the worst places to refuel, to be reminded. And for a mediator, it isn't so direct, you don't have that immediate exposure, as you do on a daily basis, humanitarian, but there was a recent example, which for me, was very, very telling. And it was a press story and interview and clip of a school in Yemen. In Taiz as one of the biggest cities in the middle of the country, as you know, a school surrounded by minefields, and Taiz has been a war zone for the last four years. And this school, a journalist went to interview the teachers, woman teacher running the school, the parents, and because the children and I saw this, and the fact that these children and these parents and these teachers went daily to school where there were no materials. There was no money to pay the teachers. There were no walls. In fact, in this blasted building. And a path, as I understand, it had been made through the minefields to get the children in and out on a daily basis. It's astonishing to think about the determination of people to keep life going. And of course, it brings tears to your eyes. Because if you have the privilege of being a parent telling, so that, for me was a reminder of why you deserve to be kept awake at night.

Melissa Fleming  24:35

When you think of that and realize that you are mediating and playing an incredibly crucial role in a situation of war and peace and a future that could either be a perpetuation of the war or a future of peace. I mean, that's, that must be a kind of daunting responsibility that's on your shoulders,

Martin Griffiths  24:59

Difficulties. getting that right so that on the one hand, you don't see yourself as the great saviour, you know, it's not it, you do your best, you do your best, daily, obviously, all you have to do every day is your best. And that's your job. And if you don't do that, then you are, of course, to be criticized. But that's all that is required of you. That's an easy thing to say. Because as you say, the war goes on, and people are in misery. What I think makes me perhaps, oddly enough, more angry than anything else, is the way in which people involved in the conflicts take their good time to resolve it. Days go by. And you know, that every single day is a day of, you know, somebody losing their lives or their livelihoods. And so, you, you say to them, no more time, and humanitarian workers know that so directly. But in my world, it's the wastage of time, that postponement of decisions, which in a way are the most frightening and difficult to understand.

Melissa Fleming  26:13

Were you always a patient person?

Martin Griffiths  26:16

You know the Secretary General's advice, as you know, is always Patience, patience, patience, patience, patience. No, I'm a very impatient person. And I believe that it's quite useful in this work, to worry a lot about whether we're doing it right. And therefore to be impatient. You try hard to be patient, of course, it's required, that you are who you are.

Melissa Fleming  29:49

We do have a lot of young listeners to this podcast and what would you advise them if they wanted to pursue this kind of career path?

Martin Griffiths  29:57

I would strongly strongly urge them to do it for a number of different reasons. First of all, I think in the last 20 years, mediation has become a much more considered activity as you know, it's become not professionalized, because I think that's rather to diminish it. But it's become understood better, more recognized as an important craft with certain principles and certain values. And therefore, as a result of that has become more equitable, which is crucial, but also more likely to have an impact. So, I would say to people in a way that I would not have said 20 years ago, please do, please do come into this, because we need you and we need, we need people who are talented enough to give their lives to this, to give their time to this, but also to give the commitment to what, how could you not have a happy life, if your job is to stop war?

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