24 February 2010
Press Conference

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

Press Conference on Situation in Haiti by Secretary-General’s


Acting Principal Deputy Special Representative

 


The United Nations response to the earthquake in Haiti had been extraordinary, given the unique situation in which both the country’s and the Organization’s capabilities had been devastated, a top official of the world body said at Headquarters today.


“This is the most challenging disaster response that the United Nations has ever faced in its history,” Anthony Banbury, Acting Principal Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), said at a press conference this afternoon.  “It’s a unique situation that I hope we never face again.”


Mr. Banbury, recalling that he had previously worked on the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and other sudden-onset disasters, said the United Nations had never before faced a situation in which the capital city of a poor country had been destroyed, lives and essential infrastructure lost on such an immense scale, and in which the numbers of survivors in dire need were so vast.


He said the extreme situation exceeded the capacity of the “cluster” response system, in which tasks were divided up among responding agencies according to specialties such as health, shelter and sanitation, among others.  The scale of the devastation had tied each sector inextricably to every other.  Shelter, for example, was tied to sanitation and land issues, which were in turn connected to rubble removal.  Even in Aceh ( Indonesia), Sri Lanka, the Irrawaddy Delta ( Myanmar) during Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and other Indian Ocean areas subjected to previous disasters amid great loss of life, it had been possible to divide the response into clusters.


The structures developed over many years must be speedily augmented with another “robust” layer of experienced senior people to facilitate the extra coordination required, he emphasized.  In addition, MINUSTAH must be quickly reinforced and reconfigured, given that it was not set up for that kind of emergency and had lost at least 95 personnel at last count.  He praised the tremendous response from Headquarters and missions around the world, which had allowed the United Nations to rise to the occasion.  “It was a truly amazing team response,” he added.


Of course the response was not perfect, he conceded, but the Organization should be proud of having come close to doing everything in response to the catastrophic earthquake.  The challenge of providing shelter to an estimated 1 million homeless was particularly daunting, and no one should be under the illusion that there would be no misery in the approaching season of heavy tropical rains.  Given that caveat, the United Nations and the Haitian Government were strongly committed to doing everything within their means to assist everyone needing shelter by that time, he said, affirming also that when the rains came, the world body would still be working, with many personnel living in difficult situations themselves.


Asked about security, he said the rule-of-law infrastructure had suffered the same destruction as other sectors in its three essential areas -- police, courts and prisons.  Eight of 17 prisons had been destroyed or damaged, and 60 per cent of their 9,000 prisoners had escaped, 300 of whom were considered very dangerous.  Court buildings, the Ministry of Justice, Haitian National Police headquarters and the prosecutor’s offices had also been destroyed.  MINUSTAH was heavily engaged in that area and a lot was being accomplished.  A few days ago, the national penitentiary had been days away from being able once again to receive prisoners, he recalled, adding, however, that he was still very concerned about some “very nasty” gang leaders who remained at large.


Responding to reports that police had summarily executed suspected criminals, he said the situation was unclear.  What was known was that around 100 escaped prisoners had been recaptured and about 10 killed, either by local people or police.


He said he could not comment on reports of theft, payoffs and bribery at the port, but remarked that it was inevitable that things would not go perfectly in every large, complex relief operation.  The immediate priority was enabling the distribution of shelter and food supplies once the rains began.


In response to questions about the contracting process for rubble removal, he said the amount of material to be removed had been estimated at between 23 million to 60 million cubic metres, or upwards of 2 million truckloads.  The Government needed to get the job done quickly, which might mean that its procurement processes would not always be perfect.


He affirmed that any contracting or monies that went through the United Nations would have to be held to the Organization’s strict standards.  The world body also had an interest in ensuring that all donor money went towards the intended purposes in order to maintain confidence.  “We’ll do the very best we can to ensure that level of confidence is there,” he said.


Mr. Banbury said he had not read a Human Rights Watch report that found many post-earthquake violations, but he commented that the Organization always made choices with a view to minimizing human rights violations.  For example, it had avoided the construction of large camps for displaced persons because they might have engendered widespread sexual violence, compared to the three rapes cited in the report.


He said the effectiveness of Government efforts varied according to sector, pointing out that the surge in food supplies and local distribution could not have been accomplished without focused Government cooperation.  It was also in charge of health care, but relied heavily on assistance from many partners.


Asked about the question of invoking eminent domain in order to resettle displaced people, he said land-use issues were firmly under the aegis of the Haitian Government, since they essentially involved the rights of a sovereign State.


Asked whether the use of the cluster system would now be reassessed, he said that, while it was working, the unique Haitian emergency called for robust capacity beyond the cluster system.  That capacity had quickly been put in place through the cooperation of MINUSTAH and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).


* *** *


For information media • not an official record