Over a long and distinguished career in international affairs, Michael Williams stepped forward to tackle some of the most difficult conflict situations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

A message from the director

It is with great sadness that we mark the death of Michael Williams, Baron Williams of Baglan, who passed away peacefully on Sunday 23 April at his home in Oxfordshire, following a brief battle with cancer.

Michael became a distinguished fellow at Chatham House, one of our first, in October 2011, when he returned to London after completing his time at the United Nations and becoming a life peer and the international trustee at the BBC. Michael brought to the institute his extensive experience both at the UN, where he reached the level of under secretary general (having served as the UN special coordinator for Lebanon and, earlier, as the special adviser to the secretary general on the Middle East), and in government, where he served as special diplomatic adviser to foreign secretaries Robin Cook and Jack Straw and UK special envoy for the Middle East. 

Earlier in his career, Michael worked as part of the UN Transitional Administration for Cambodia (UNTAC) and the UN Protection Force for the Former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR), after stints as a senior editor at the BBC World Service and the head of the Asia research department at Amnesty International.

Michael's principal passions at Chatham House were the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He was executive chair of our Middle East and North Africa Programme’s Syria and its Neighbours project and chaired or contributed to numerous events and debates, while offering a steady stream of incisive insights into the difficult situation there through his writing, his regular commentary to the media and addresses to high-level seminars and conferences. 

Michael also sustained his keen interest in Southeast Asia, having gained his MA and PhD on Indonesia from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Michael generously stepped in to serve as the acting head of the Asia Programme from mid-2012 to early 2014. In 2012, he helped to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi to London as a Chatham House Prize winner, following her release from house arrest, and went on to develop and lead a major Chatham House roundtable in Myanmar in September 2014.

Michael was a wonderful colleague; humorous, approachable and engaged with senior and junior staff in equal measure. He treasured his time at Chatham House and believed deeply in the institute's mission. He served on the editorial board on International Affairs from 1998–2006 and as a member of Council from 2001–05, and chaired the steering committee of our annual London Conference since its inception in 2014. He was also invaluable to me as an informal adviser throughout his time with the institute. We will miss him greatly.

Dr Robin Niblett
Director, Chatham House

 

Obituaries

The Guardian (by Alan Philps)
The Daily Telegraph
The Times
Financial Times
The Independent

 

Selected writing from Michael’s time at the institute

Burma: Signs of Hope
Expert Comment, 21 June 2012

The United Nations: Past and Present
International Affairs, September 2013, Volume 89, Number 5

Talking to Hezbollah
International Affairs, January 2015, Volume 91, Number 1

Myanmar’s Troubled Path to Reform
Chatham House Research Paper, 26 February 2015

Is It Better to Forget?
The World Today, June/July 2016

The Road Out of Syria’s Inferno
The World Today, October/November 2016

 

Comments

I knew Michael from the 1990s and was delighted when he joined Chatham House in the first year of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, when he provided an important moral force to his contribution to the institute’s Middle East and North Africa Programme’s work in addition to his highly regarded professional experience. He later guided, promoted and championed  our work on Syria and the wider Middle East, from his participation in debates in the House of Lords to his impressive network of international contacts. But most appreciated of all was the personal support and encouragement he gave to individual researchers here, in ways that will indeed be sadly missed.

I join others in saying how sad I was to hear the news yesterday, at a time when Michael and his wife were just embarking on a new life in the Cotswolds. An event to mark his passing and his wide-ranging contribution to the debates and analysis of our times is a very fitting tribute to a great defender of Chatham House’s mission, as well as to a genuinely humane and gifted colleague.

Best wishes,

Dr Claire Spencer
Senior Research Fellow
Middle East and North Africa Programme and 2nd Century Initiative
Chatham House

Dr Claire Spencer

I was very sad to hear that Michael had died.

He was a marvellous colleague and kind friend and I was very fortunate to have known him since the mid-1990s when he joined the International Affairs editorial board. He brought great experience and expertise to that board and continued to advise and be interested in the journal after he stepped down and indeed throughout his time at the institute.  He was a true internationalist and Chatham House will greatly miss his careful analysis and contribution to its work.

Best wishes

Caroline

Caroline Soper
Series Editor
Insights

Caroline Soper

Such sad news. I knew Michael when he was at the FCO and then worked closely with him and his team in Lebanon. It was so wonderful to have him at Chatham House and I also travelled back to Lebanon with him on one occasion and saw first hand how warmly he was greeted and received by all sides. He had that kind of personality which exuded calm and made people feel they could talk to him and he listened. This earned a lot of respect in one of the most challenging environments to work in. Had long discussions with him about the Balkans too, so much experience and wisdom, such a great loss.

Nadim Shehadi
Director, Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

Nadim Shehadi

 

I always enjoyed sharing snippets about Wales with Michael.

Gorffwys mewn hedd (Rest in Peace)

Michael Farrell

Thank you, Robin, for your tribute to Michael.

You have captured well the nature of Michael's huge contribution and impact. I had the privilege of working closely with Michael at the FCO during 2001 and 2005 when he and I were Jack Straw's two special advisers.

Wise, passionate, funny, modest, generous, insightful - he had a significant impact on government policy at that time. But I will best remember him as a fantastic colleague and friend, and a wonderful human being. He will be greatly missed by many.

Ed Owen

Ed Owen

Dear Robin:

I am shocked and saddened by the news of Michael's far too early death.  He was a gentle giant of principled internationalism (and of Welsh Labour).    He taught me a lot, especially about the Middle East, where he did such important work for the UN.  Last year we had a stirring conversation in front of a Chatham House audience, where michael showed all of his knowledge in his usual ultra modest way, but I will also remember him for participating so happily in our Easter Egg hunt in Central Park.  We need people like Michael Williams, and should learn from his example.

David Miliband

David Miliband

We are deeply mourned.
Bikash Halder

I met Michael when he was leading the team on the programme - Dateline East Asia in the late 80s. One of the nicest people I had the honour of working  alongside. A very sad loss indeed to the World Service family.

Lai Kuen Wong

Bush House

Lai Kuen Wong

Dear Robin and colleagues,

Michael epitomised the best features of Chatham House: reflective, non doctrinaire, engaged, unfailingly courteous and with a warmth and openness to people around him that made him fantastically good company. When I stepped into his shoes as Asia programme head, he was a thoughtful and considerate mentor, providing advice when needed and generously offering his experience, insights and considerable international and domestic contacts to help whenever he could. His wore his scholarship lightly, but was always perceptive and authoritative. He was a natural raconteur and I relished the chances to meet him professionally and socially and hear him reminisce. Whether reflecting on the politics of Southeast Asia or the importance of international institutions, his humanitarian instincts and his recognition that individuals and personalities are at the heart of international politics, shone through. His passing feels cruelly premature. I’ll miss his laughter, his infectious humour, his gentle Welsh lilt and his warmth and friendship greatly.

John

Dr. John Nilsson-Wright
Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia
Asia Programme
Chatham House

Dr John Nilsson...

Such sad and unexpected news.  I remember Michael as special Adviser to Jack Straw and Robin Cook and more recently saw him regularly at Chatham House.  He was a kind and gentle man with a deep understanding of the world. He will be sorely missed.  

William Patey

Dear Robin

Michael was a pillar of reason, principles and clarity of vision in the cloudy world of international involvment in the Middle East. Both as a UN and as a British official, his commitment to principled internationalism has not waivered. And I am proud to have worked with him in different capacities and to call him a friend. His departure is a shock, and deeply saddening, but his decency and commitment will remain with us. Rest in peace.

 

Ezzedine C. Fishere

Dear Robin,

I was very sorry to hear of the death of Michael.  We were introduced by the FCO prior to us both going to our postings in Lebanon in 2008.  He became a good friend and mentor, someone who could be trusted to give honest advice, and was excellent company too.  A sad loss.

Janice McClean

Detective Superintendent (Retired)

London Metropolitan Police

Janice McClean

May I join others in mourning the passing of Michael  and paying tribute to him. He and I were colleagues at different times over the years - in the FCO, the UN, and most recently at Ditchley, where he chaired several conferences and participated in others. He was always charming, thoughtful and well-informed, and a pleasure to be with. His knowledge and experience of the Middle East and South East Asia were extraordinary and inspiring. The world and international affairs are poorer without him, and I will miss him personally too.

John Holmes

 

John Holmes

Sad to hear of the passing of Michael. He was one of the finest diplomats of his generation. When I was stumbling my way through the mysterious ways of King Charles St in the 1990s and 2000s he was always kind, generous, patient, and humorous.

Tim Marshall

Former Diplomatic Editor

Sky News.

Tim Marshall

Thank you for providing an opportunity to remember Michael. He was a kind and wise man, whom I was glad to meet again in recent years after having first met him at the Foreign Office in 2001-3. His modesty and patience made him an ideal diplomat. His loss will be felt at Chatham House, but also much more widely, as others' condolences already show.

Gerard Russell

Gerard Russell

My deepest sympathy to his family.He was a wise and gentle man.His thoughtful advice and his love of Wales will be much missed. Ann Clwyd

via Twitter

Ann Clwyd MP

Michael was a true advocate for peace, a lovely man of enormous intellect & rare generosity. We’ll miss him greatly. Thoughts with Isobelle.

via Twitter

Sara Pantuliano

Michael was my boss as Head of Public Affairs and Spokesperson of the UNPROFOR peacekkeping mission in former Yugoslavia, a daunting task given the level of hostilities of the three sides, as well as one of the biggest and complex UN operations. His professionalism leading UN briefings before a usually critical press was a lesson of patience and calm. He would compile the statement with a dedication to checking facts and accuracy in presenting the UN view. Michael was a loyal defender of his public information officers in the field, of which I was just one. Calling me in one day after Mission HQ had questioned my statement on a military incident, he said he took responsibility himself, and then in his calm, slow Welsh voice, added "but, it would help me, and you too, if you might consider to lie low, just for a little while, and I know you will understand". Over those two years, revealed his was the way of quiet thinking, thoughtfulness and knowledge from direct contact with people in the field, besides a good reading of history. History that he often reminded, should not be disregarded in its influence on present events. Michael's passing is a big loss, but his example as quiet and supportive service, a wise counsel will remain - as is clear by the tributes of many whom he shared time along the way. Looking forwards the content of Michael's essays is a contribution to those scanning the past in making future policy or/and participating in future international missions.  

Alyn Roberts,  former UN Public Information Officer, Sector South HQ, Knin, Croatia  

 

Alyn Roberts

I am very sorry for these terrible news.  I had the opportunity to spend time with Michael on several Middle East activities.  Last time in London we spend a long time talking about Brexit. He was a wise man, and it will be miss by the International Relations community.  

Mariano Aguirre...

I'm deeply saddened by Michael's premature demise. He was one of these rare individuals whose inner strength and brilliance impact other people's lives in a profoundly transformative and uplifting manner. We've lost an amazingly beautiful mind and generous human being. Eternal peace.

parfait onanga-...

Michael was my boss at the United Nations, during peacekeeping missions in both Cambodia and Former Yugoslavia. But more than the fact that he was, by far, the best boss I have ever had, he was an inspiration, a role model, a mentor. As others have mentioned, his soft, but oh so wise manner was something to behold. And, of course, there was his voice. He was, as all know, charming, open to debate -- in fact relished debate -- and always spot on. I'll never forget the night we stayed up into the wee hours – after pizza and beer -- with SRSG Akashi drafting a three-paragraph statement on the use of NATO air power, hours to make sure just a few words didn't offend. Michael was meticulous in all he did. Those who knew him will miss him so. The world, too, will miss him.

Jeff Heyman

To a large extent I can only echo the shock and sadness that has already been expressed in the comments here already. Over my time at Chatham House I've had many conversations with Michael and his ablilty to understand and articulate the perspectives on all sides of an issue was always an education in itself.

Last year I heard Michael being interviewed on the Today programme by John Humphreys and I was astonished that he wasn't interrupted, even once.  When I later asked him how he'd managed this feat with such a notoriously combative interviewer, Michael was typically modest, but I think the reason lies in something very simple - he gave straightforward answers to questions without ducking or diving. Michael was able to articulate the difficulties, the conplexities and paradoxes of a situation, and treated both interviewer and audience with respect.

I will miss our conversations along with his gentle nature and humour which made our interactions such a pleasure.

People such as Michael are all too rare and the world is a poorer place without him.

David Bates
LIbrary Manager
Chatham House

David Bates

As so many have said, Michael combined decency, wisdom and profound knowledge in equal measures, as few are able to do. His loss is great to the whole community of people who think and worry about international relations.

Christopher Hill

Dear Robin and friends from Chatham House,

What a sad way to finish this week. I know that Michael was a staunch supporter of principled humanitarian action, being himself a true man of principles. I shall not forget his humour, his insights, and his deep conviction that it is worth to fight for a better world.

He will be sadly missed by many of us.

My heartfelt feelings go to his family and friends.

May he rest in peace.

Yours truly,

Markus Geisser - ICRC Mission to the UK and Ireland - Senior Policy Advisor

Markus Geisser

Michael was very kind and wise in helping me when I was Labour Shadow Middle East and Africa Minister. His insights were invaluable and his humility added to his great wisdom. My sympathy to his family and friends.

 

Ian Lucas MP

Like others, I came to know Michael well over the long years of his outstanding public service and diplomatic career.  Most recently, we had worked to improve the alignment between two of the UK's finest NGOs, Mine Action Group (MAG), of which Michael was chair, and the HALO Trust.  Sadly, Michael's final illness prohibited his attending a joint event at Kensington Palace earlier this month to mark the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty, at which Prince Harry spoke movingly of his mother's role in highlighting the issue of landmines and DFID announced the tripling of their investment in the work to remove the debris of war.  Michael's vision inspired that event.  Everyone has paid tribute to his wisdom, kindness and unparalleled knowledge of the issues with which he wrestled, but I will remember most his mischievous humour, finding something to lighten the moment even in the most challenging of circumstances.  He was a fine man and lived his life well.  I'm proud to have been his friend.  

Mark Sedwill

michael's death is a great loss. His devotion to international affairs was unmatched. His ideas were always supported by solid evidence and his grasp of detail was most impressive. He was a great help to me when I was Director of Chatham a House in his role as a member of Council. I shall miss him greatly.

victor.bulmerthomas

It is indeed very sad news.  I knew Michael from his time in Lebanon as the UN Special Coordinator there.  We spent long hours discussing politics of the Middle East, but also great food and travel stories.  He was always sharp, incisive and very well informed with a witty sense of humour.  His vast global experience in conflict situations was very impressive and his knolwedge of the intimate details of peace processes was astounding.  I last saw Michael in June 2016 during a seminar on Syria at Chatham House.  He was as sharp and alaytical as ever.  May his soul rest in peace.

Oussama Safa, former director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies

 

 

Oussama Safa

I am sending my condolences for the death of your distinguished colleague and friend Michael Williams.
Saadia C.

Only can only echo the tributes above. Michael was a model for the international community as a senior diplomat, academic, human rights advocate and journalist. I shall miss his kind and thoughtful concern and engagement on many issues.

Nick Hopkinson

Dear Robin

Thank you for your warm and thoughtful tribute to Michael.  Indeed very sad to learn Michael's passing.  I met him first 10 years ago when I started to work in Japan's Mission to UN and sought his views on South Asia.  Ever since I have been so impressed with his wise remarks based on his deep knowledge and vast experience as well as his calmness and warmth with which he controlled  well his strong passion for the ordinary people's peace.

may his soul Rest In Peace.

Akio Miyajima

Director General

International Peace Cooperation Headquarters

Cabinet Office, Japan

 

 

Akio Miyajima

Having served with Lord Williams in Yugoslavia, Israel and Lebanon It is with great sorrow to of heard of his passing. We in the international community lost not only a distinguished and honest leader, one with such wisdom and passion towards peace but also a true friend. Semper Fidels...

 

Andreas Kammerer

Michael's sudden discovery that he was suffering from cancer and his all too rapid decline have deprived us of one of the nicest, most generous, and most decent of colleagues and friends.  His low-key manner and soft-spoken style concealed a passion and at times an anger about the incompetence and injustice he saw around him in the many international crises he tried to resolve.  
For journalists he was always a wonderful source of inside information passed on discreetly, with nuance, intelligence and sensitivity to the complexity of the arguments and counter-arguments.  Based on his time as adviser to three British foreign secretaries and with his deep knowedge of the Middle East, his public discretion masked sharply critical views of the British record of action on Iraq and Syria and what he saw as Britain's excessively frequent concurrence with US strategy.  He is sorely missed.

Jonathan Steele

Dear Robin

Let me just add to all the richly deserved tributes above that Michael was a wonderful, generous and seemingly tireless resource for journalists. He shared his knowledge and understanding of the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia with modesty and a gentle humour. Despite specialising in some of the world's most intractable conflicts, he never became cynical. Running into Michael in a trouble spot was always a delight. Our paths last crossed when he pitched up in Cairo in 2013 to see how the Muslim Brotherhood's attempt to run Egypt was going. As ever, he had an open, inquisitive mind, empathy for the society around him and an interest in solutions rather than just problems. It was a pleasure and a privilege to know Michael. My condolences to his family and his colleagues.

Paul Taylor

Contributing Editor, POLITICO

Former Diplomatic Editor, Reuters 

Paul Taylor

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