Britain Retains Monopoly on U.N. Relief Post

U.N.’s Yemen envoy, Martin Griffiths, is to become the U.N. humanitarian relief czar.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks during a press conference.
U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on April 12. Photo by John MacDougall/pool/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations plans as early as Wednesday to announce the appointment of Martin Griffiths, currently the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, as the organization’s humanitarian czar, placing a seasoned mediator and relief expert at the helm of the U.N.’s top relief agency while reinforcing a big power monopoly over the institution’s most influential jobs.

Griffiths, 69, will be the fifth consecutive British national to serve as U.N. undersecretary-general for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs since 2007, one of five cabinet-level U.N. jobs that are traditionally held by nationals from the five permanent members of the Security Council. China, France, Russia, and the United States have a lock on the top U.N. jobs overseeing economic development, peacekeeping, counterterrorism, and political affairs.

In selecting Griffiths, who will also take the title of U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres passed over the official British candidate, Nick Dyer, Britain’s special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, who was said to be favored by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as Caroline Kende-Robb, a former secretary-general of CARE International. Kende-Robb was an early favorite of the U.N. chief, who hoped to fill the post with a woman. In the end, Guterres settled on a familiar diplomatic player in the U.N. system.

The decision comes just weeks after Britain announced sharp cuts in foreign aid, raising questions about whether Britain still deserves to lead the U.N.’s premier humanitarian relief agency. The “titanic aid cuts will hit the world’s most vulnerable communities with deadly force,” said Martin Hartberg, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in the U.K., in a statement last month, saying the cuts amount to 40 percent of Britain’s aid contributions in 2019. “The U.K.’s proud status as a global aid superpower is dealt another massive blow.”

A former British diplomat, Griffiths was a founding director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, a nongovernmental mediation outfit, and later served as the executive director of the European Institute of Peace. He has previously worked for the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children as well as served as a senior official in the U.N.’s humanitarian affairs office in the 1990s.

Griffiths, who was appointed special envoy for Yemen in February 2018, has struggled to end a 6-year-long civil war that has pitted the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi insurgency against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. In March 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition backed by U.S. logistical and intelligence support entered the conflict, escalating the fighting and transforming Yemen into a humanitarian hellscape.

In the end, Griffith’s position was undermined by the Houthis’ refusal to meet with him, and his role was eclipsed as the Biden administration, which has its own Yemen envoy—Tim Lenderking—decided to take a more active role in trying to negotiate an end to the war. In recent months, Griffiths has shown interest in taking on a new assignment, according to U.N. officials. The pending appointment will leave a vacancy in one of the U.N.’s most high profile diplomatic posts.

In a recent statement, Griffiths voiced his growing frustration with efforts to negotiate a cease-fire, citing the year long Houthi assault on the city of Marib, and to convince the Saudi and Yemeni government to reopen Sana’a International Airport and end restrictions that have hobbled humanitarian deliveries at the port of Hodeidah. “We have been discussing these issues for over a year now,” Griffiths said in a May 5 statement. “Unfortunately, we are not where we would like to be in reaching a deal.”

The U.N. had been facing increasing pressure from private charities and humanitarian relief specialists to widen the search for the top U.N. relief official beyond Britain. In February, a coalition of humanitarian organizations urged Guterres to end the practice of limiting the search to British candidates.

“We urge you to undertake an international search for qualified candidates and suspend the custom of allowing an individual Member State to maintain a hold on this position,” according to an appeal organized by InterAction, an association of private relief organizations. “This custom is not required as a matter of the U.N. Charter and associated regulations—indeed it goes against the spirit of the Charter.”

A group of more than 50 former U.N. officials and relief experts also wrote an open letter in March to Johnson, urging him to “encourage the U.N. to conduct an international search” for the top humanitarian posts, noting that 20 percent of the most senior jobs at the U.N. have gone to nationals of the five permanent members of the U.N., excluding a “large swathe of global talent.”

Following the appeals, Guterres issued an invitation to U.N. member states to put forward candidates for the top U.N. humanitarian job, drawing in candidates from around the world, including the former Swedish ambassador to the U.N., Olof Skoog, who currently serves as the European Union’s ambassador to the United Nations. But Skoog’s candidacy was rejected several weeks ago.

Update, May 12, 2021: Information on the composition of the list of finalists has been updated.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch