1 February 2010
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Acting Special Representative on Situation in Haiti

 


Describing the humanitarian situation in Haiti as the “main absolute priority”, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in that country said today that the United Nations was working hard to address it through a complex water and food distribution effort aimed at feeding 2 million people before the end of February.


Edmond Mulet, Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), said via video conference from the earthquake-devastated capital of Port-au-Prince that a rice distribution effort yesterday had reached 100,000 people at nine distribution points.  The number of distribution points would increase by three more today, rising to as many as 19 tomorrow, he added, noting that yesterday’s distribution had gone smoothly.


Canadian, United States and MINUSTAH forces, as well as convoys of the Haitian National Police, among others, were providing the necessary security, said Mr. Mulet, who was accompanied today by Kim Bolduc, Deputy Special Representative and United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, and Michèle Montas, recently-appointed adviser to Mr. Mulet and former Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Mr. Mulet, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations who headed MINUSTAH until 2007, also provided updates on the status of United Nations personnel, saying 92 had been confirmed dead so far, three had been injured and seven remained unaccounted for.


Regarding the cash-for-work programme established through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and non-governmental organizations, he said some 30,000 people were now working, cleaning the streets, clearing rubble and participating in local reconstruction efforts.  There were also efforts to address the situation of the 400,000 to 500,000 people who had left the capital for the provinces. 


The aim of medium- and long-term recovery efforts was to provide permanent assistance and create jobs for the displaced, he said.  The effort was an opportunity for the Government to “decentralize and de-concentrate” Port-au-Prince where all economic and political power had previously been focused.


Current efforts were also centred on providing shelter ahead of the rainy season and, later, the hurricane season, he continued.  Some agencies were opening camps for internally displaced persons.  They had originally been intended to house 100,000 people, but were now being made more “human-sized”, for 10,000 to 30,000 people each, and designed with their own churches, parks and schools, among other amenities.


He said the United Nations was also helping the Government re-establish physical structures from which to work, an effort in which prefabricated structures were being set up at the site of the presidential palace.  The United States Government had donated the grounds of its former embassy to house the offices of the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members, and the World Bank was beefing up its secretariat in support of the Haitian Government, for which the upcoming New York conference on 22 and 23 March would be an opportunity to present an initial assessment of the situation.


Meanwhile, Mr. Mulet said, MINUSTAH was receiving the first teams from troop-contributing countries following the Security Council’s authorization to increase the Mission’s troop and police levels.  Japan and the Republic of Korea would send engineering units, while Guatemala and Brazil were sending troop and military police contingents in the next two weeks.  Work to establish housing facilities for those additional troops was under way, he added.


Overall, the situation was under control, he said, noting that the initial disruptions had calmed down.  The Haitian population had been very responsible in working with the United Nations to identify gang leaders.  While the most dangerous remained at large, some 22 to 24 of them had been arrested, including some who had tried to cross the border into the Dominican Republic.  Canadian, French, Jamaican and American forces were working to prevent that.


Last week in Montreal, the international community had endorsed a plan for coordinating mechanisms, which was now being implemented, he recalled.  “So everything is coming together and we are very pleased with the results on the ground.  Of course, the task is enormous and multidimensional,” with many threats to deal with at once, but the Government was structuring itself and responding.  Despite all the tragedy and sorrow, the United Nations and its agencies were getting back on their feet, and they, along with the Government, were performing “very, very well”, he said, voicing confidence that, day by day and week by week, a better future for Haiti would be possible.


Ms. Bolduc added that the first round of needs and damage assessment in all affected areas had been completed and the data was being compiled.  That exercise should be repeated again in a month as the situation was very fluid, with people moving to the interior of the country, she said, noting that much information, such as ministry databases, had been destroyed in the earthquake.


She said the main concern was still shelter and the lack of tents and accommodation, with the biggest worry being the coming rainy season.  The Prime Minister had said this morning that he wanted the Government to report within 48 hours on precisely where things stood in terms of shelter.  Some contradictory advice had been circulated about whether tents were absolutely necessary, she noted, emphasizing that they were.


“We are still looking all over the place trying to find them,” she added, noting that militaries around the world might be able to get their hands on a fair number of tents.  The humanitarian country team that had emanated from the Montreal meeting, and which would lead to more analytical work in support of the Government, would be up and running today, she reported.


Asked how land was acquired for housing, Ms. Bolduc said that land allocated for sheltering displaced people either belonged to the Government or had been donated by the private sector.  Once it was obtained, there was a need to guarantee its safety during the rainy season, the presence of security and the existence of reception centres to accept the population.


In response to a question about whether the nearly half a million people who had left Port-au-Prince intended to return, Mr. Mulet reiterated that the Government’s aim was to de-concentrate and decentralize by providing employment and agricultural opportunities to people moving out of the capital.  It sought a comprehensive reconstruction effort, not only in areas of physical damage, but one integrated into the development programme for the entire country and appealing to those who had left the capital for outlying regions and provinces.


Asked about the location of the tent cities to be established for approximately 10,000 people, and whether they were basically being set up to become permanent towns, Mr. Mulet said the Government had identified just a few locations so far, but planned to identify others.  It did not want people moving far from their neighbourhoods, and the United Nations wished to ensure respect for international standards -– “to give a human dignity to these places” –- rather than a replication of Port-au-Prince.


To a series of questions about people reportedly trying to take children and babies out of Haiti, he said the Government was dealing with that, but he would not know about their motivations, whether sinister or sincere, as the words of one correspondent.


In response to a related question, he said MINUSTAH and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) were working with the Government and national police to protect minors.  That effort had not been operational immediately following the earthquake, but was “all put back together” now.  Checkpoints had been deployed on the Dominican border, at the airport and elsewhere.  Additionally, several non-governmental organizations as well as the Governments of Haiti, Canada, France, the United States and other countries were working with adopting parents or couples who had already initiated legal procedures and identified an orphan for adoption.  However, new procedures were frozen until the Government and State were capable of follow-up.


Asked about the number of orphans about to depart the country and be put up for adoption, and about the availability of human-trafficking statistics, he said he did not have that information.  The Government was in the lead on that, as it was an internal situation. 


On the issue of amputees, he said that, in the beginning, many surgeons from around the world had cut off limbs in order to save lives.  That had involved as many as 5,000 to 6,000 people, and now other medical teams on the ground were trying to correct the initial amputations done under very difficult and urgent conditions, but international assistance was needed to set up special clinics, including for psychological rehabilitation.


Concerning the use of tear gas and mace by the Haitian National Police, he said those incidents had occurred in the very first days, but were not happening right now, to his knowledge.  There had been reports of questionable police behaviour against looters and scavengers, but MINUSTAH had addressed that situation with the Director General of Police, and it had been agreed that such behaviour was unacceptable and the incidents would be investigated.  MINUSTAH was “taking this very seriously and the Government was doing the same”.


Asked repeatedly how many people would be reached during the food distribution, how quickly, and whether the timeline was longer than that promised by the Secretary-General, Mr. Mulet reiterated that the distribution had reached 100,000 people yesterday, and the aim was to provide assistance and food to 2 million people -- food for 15 days, for 2 million people in one month’s time.


As to why it was going more slowly than had been anticipated, he said there had been initial problems, such as funerals and vehicles, but the distribution was now going “pretty well”.  Work was under way with local communities to identify those in need.


Ms. Bolduc added that, in light of the initial difficulties, the large swathes of affected areas and the scattering of the population, it had been decided that “flooding” would be the best means to get food to the population.  Initial figures were often for planning purposes, she said, pointing out that everyone would like to reach more people, but the constraints were great.  Still, the World Food Programme had delivered 16 million meals since the earthquake struck.


Pressed about who was not being reached, she cited specific areas, while Ms. Montas added that several people had set up camp in their own neighbourhoods, so there might be five to 10 families in one place.  The population was not located only in public squares, she added, stressing that 80 per cent of the capital had been destroyed.


Ms. Bolduc emphasized that the situation was extremely complicated, with small groups of people living in collapsed houses and buildings being reached by MINUSTAH tanks filled with food.  Many people refused to leave their homes, and reaching them would require sending trucks out to thousands of areas each day, which was impossible.  While food distribution was an extremely complicated operation, there was also a major problem of rotating the food.  People who received food for five days last week, for example, needed to be reached again, and “our capacity to turn around is not to be trusted”.


Describing the Haitian Government as among the world’s most corrupt, a correspondent said that assistance contributed during the 2008 hurricanes had benefited officials and asked whether the United Nations had any control over how the Government used aid.


Mr. Mulet said the Government had not received any money or cash, as all assistance had been sent in the form of food, shelter and water, through UNDP and non-governmental organizations working with the United Nations.


Ms. Bolduc added that there 900 non-governmental organizations were currently registered as humanitarian actors in the field.  The Government was continuing with its pre-earthquake programmes, and she was not aware either of any large amounts of aid money sent to the Government.  However, she did not have any information about donations from elsewhere that the Government might be handling.


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For information media • not an official record