For a man confronting the darkest situations on Earth, Martin Griffiths retains a surprising light touch. “God, I’d love to do this off the record — but I won’t,” he says, followed by a laugh, near the start of our interview. He later explains his right eye is bruised after an incident with a table which “the table won.”
A Welshman with floppy white hair and a firm moral backbone, Griffiths has been the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs since 2021, trying to champion humanity in ever less promising circumstances.
In the first nine months of this year, his in-tray included asking Bashar al-Assad for access to earthquake-affected northern Syria, brokering a deal between Ukraine and Russia over grain exports through the Black Sea, and responding to horrendous floods in Libya. Those weren’t even his biggest headaches: that was Sudan, where rampaging militias have left half the population relying on handouts.
On October 6, Griffiths’ agency — the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — was “already completely overstretched”, having received less than 20 per cent of the funding it had requested for the year.
Since the October 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel, the challenges have been unprecedented. The UN’s aid operations in Gaza have almost collapsed. Around 1.2mn civilians have gathered at its schools and other buildings, meaning there is now one toilet for every 700 people. At least 136 UN workers have been killed; staff bring their children to work, so they might survive or at least die together.
Griffiths is an expert in mediation, but forthright humanitarianism has become controversial. Israel has called for the resignation of UN secretary-general António Guterres over comments he made about the Hamas attacks; it refused to extend the visa of UN aid co-ordinator in Jerusalem, Lynn Hastings. Griffiths himself found he “wasn’t immediately welcome” to visit Israel after an appearance on CNN, in which he described Gaza as the “worst ever” humanitarian crisis he’d experienced.
He explains the reasoning behind the words “worst ever”. Many places have “terrible” suffering, but at least those affected can flee. In Gaza, “people can’t leave . . . No family can plan for their future . . . I see these things all over the world, but this is beyond my imagination. And it will get worse.”
Indeed the human catastrophe is entering a new phase: “it is disease, hunger that is beginning to be the lead cause of death and deprivation.” The death toll from disease could be multiples of that from fighting and air strikes. But the latter may also have been dramatically undercounted so far. “We’ve yet to see what’s under the rubble. These estimates of [around 18,000] dead — once you start digging under the rubble, the statistics change radically. In the case of [February’s] Turkish earthquake, the number of those dead doubled.”
Israel has criticised UN leaders for not condemning Hamas’s killing of 1,200 Israelis and taking more than 200 hostages. Griffiths, who has seen videos from the October 7 attacks, condemns the group unprompted. He also recognises the aid needs within Israel: “There are displaced people in Israel as a result of this war.”
Griffiths sees no evidence that Israel’s assault in the south of Gaza is more precise than in the north. “I’ve been disappointed . . . We were promised this. The Americans did a lot of diplomacy on this. The truth of the matter is we have not seen it at all in the south. On the contrary, we’ve seen it grow more.”
Last month, he prepared a ten-point plan, premised on greater Israeli restraint: it included the creation of relief distribution hubs. “I just threw it in the bin . . . I was a fool to even think that it was sensible . . . We turn around and find out the truth: the war ain’t over yet, it ain’t half over . . . I don’t think we’re halfway through this yet. We’ve got weeks and weeks to go of this savage war.”
Griffiths, 72, began his career 50 years ago as a Unicef volunteer in what was then known as Indochina. He had planned to join Unilever, where his father worked, but there was a hitch: “They told him after my interview, ‘He was doing pretty fine until he attacked the concept of capitalism.’”
Today he has reconciled to capitalism — at least he longs for the return of commercial food deliveries to Gaza.
“None of the normal, sound foundations you see across the world for humanitarian operations in places like Syria and Afghanistan exist for us in Gaza. We do not have places of safety from which to operate — where people can gather safely to receive aid and be protected.” It is stark to hear Syria and Afghanistan held up as positive examples.
Before the war, 500 trucks a day entered Gaza through various checkpoints. The day before we speak, 100 have crossed through Rafah, on the border with Egypt, which cannot handle many more. Griffiths’ recent priority has been to open a second crossing, at Kerem Shalom: “Let’s say we could get up to 300 or 400 or 500 trucks a day — that would start being scale.” After our interview, Israel agreed to allow some trucks to cross at Kerem Shalom.
The other priority is “deconfliction”, the process whereby warring parties agree to respect aid operations. “If we could have faith in deconfliction, we could begin to resume a more normal operation. We would bring the trucks in, we would unload, say, in Rafah and some warehouses in the south, we would reidentify points of safety — they would all be UN institutions, schools and hospitals and places like this — and we could deliver aid on a regular basis.”
The UN wants a ceasefire, but a system of humanitarian notification is the minimum.
Israel has said the UN and other aid agencies should focus on providing services in south-west Gaza, where it has told civilians to cluster. Griffiths is sceptical. “First of all, both sides have to agree to the safe zones . . . Hamas also attacks civilian infrastructure. Number two, the UN has a little bit of history on this, from Srebrenica [where thousands of civilians were killed in 1995 in a supposed UN safe zone]. Number three, Muwasi, where the safe zone was identified, it doesn’t have the facilities necessary for the people to go there.”
Griffiths also notes that humanitarian law “stipulates that people should decide for themselves where to go and when to leave, and when to move, and to be allowed to do so safely. It’s not a matter for me to tell them where to go, let alone one of the two [warring] parties.”
Before joining the UN, Griffiths headed a think-tank, the European Institute of Peace. There he wrote that peace deals are “usually the result of a long process in which conflict parties learn to negotiate”. He also argued that peace relies on civil society, not just elite negotiations.
Today, even as Israeli tanks roll through Gaza, he wants Palestinians to begin a “messy” debate on their future — because hope “depends not just on humanitarian aid, it also depends on a sense of where will my family be able to live and will my children ever get back to school?”
Could the UN run Gaza, as it once ran post-conflict East Timor and Kosovo? That would be “impractical”, says Griffiths, but there are other options, including UN observer missions.
Griffiths also wants accountability. “The impunity that goes along with the choosing of war as your first option has never been greater. And the impunity for killing humanitarian aid workers has never been greater . . . Impunity we have seen rampant in this war.” Could accountability come through the International Criminal Court, or new frameworks? Griffiths says special tribunals have the best record of bringing accountability. “Maybe there is a need for a special tribunal [for Gaza].”
What he won’t do is exclude Hamas a priori from future discussions on Gaza. “Dealing with terrorists is not new to me. I mediated between ETA and the Spanish state, I mediated between the PKK and the Turkish state. People who we revile for terrible acts may still need to be part of the conversation.
“The people of Palestine do have a right to say who can and can’t be excluded, and I’m sure they would be inclusive rather than exclusive, but that they would base it on a premise of certain values.”
What would he say to Israeli politicians who feel no obligation even to let a drop of aid into Gaza? “Israel has a right to be very, very angry indeed, and the people of Gaza have a right to be very, very angry indeed . . . It is an exceptional political leader who accepts anger but moves it to dialogue.”
So far the UN has asked for $1.2bn in funding for Gaza. That will only last a few months. “And we certainly have no concept at the moment of reconstruction costs.”
The backdrop is grim: funding for UN aid programmes fell in 2023 for the first time in 13 years, even before adjusting for inflation. Because of the lack of donor appetite, Griffiths is asking for $46bn in aid money for next year, one-fifth less than this year — meaning cuts to life-saving programmes. Meanwhile, civilian deaths from conflict last year were the highest since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and climate disasters are worsening.
As a teenager, Griffiths joined protests against the Vietnam war in London. He wishes today’s public were as animated about humanitarian disasters: “We have to get much better at pitching into people’s souls.”
He has the rare aura of someone who has seen horrors, yet not been wearied or unbalanced by them. In 1997, when Griffiths was visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, a baby died while his mother was worrying about fluids splattered on Griffiths’ shirt. “Any of us who have had the opportunity to smell the smell of death will never forget it,” he says at one point.
“I’ve seen terrible things, but they are reminders of humanity as much as they are reminders of oppression. And I think I’m the luckiest person in the world.” Hope, like humour, is essential for his work.