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Hope at last for Haiti

The Washington Times (US)

09 August 2007

By Ban Ki-moon

There may be worse slums in Haiti, but none so infamous for its violence and grinding poverty as Cité Soleil in the heart of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Drinking water is scarce, public sanitation nonexistent. Most of its 300,000 residents have no electricity; fewer have jobs. The neighborhood's mayor was blunt when I met him during my visit to Haiti last week. "Here," he said, "we need everything."

And yet I also saw hope in Cité Soleil. At the mayor's offices, a new local government is putting down roots in a community it long ago abandoned. Across the street, I toured a newly refurbished school. Youngsters greeted me, excited by the prospect of resuming their education. Nearby, young men played soccer.

People struggle merely to survive in Cité Soleil. The irony of its name, Sun City, is cruel. Yet I was glad to see this lively bustle, these signs of normal life. Six months ago, there would have been none of this. Gangs ruled, terrorizing ordinary people, extorting money and destroying lives. Kidnappings were routine — nearly 100 a month. Even poor families feared to leave home, especially with children.

Last December, newly elected President René Préval asked the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti to do something. It did, with a decisiveness and efficiency that serves as a model of robust international peacekeeping. In an operation lasting six weeks, amid fierce firefights, U.N. forces took control of the slum. Roughly 800 gang members were arrested; their leaders have been jailed. The practical results are plain to see. In June, only six kidnappings were reported. Security has returned not only to the streets of Cité Soleil, but to the rest of the capital and other Haitian cities as well.

I saw other signs of progress. For the first time in a long while, Haiti has a stable, democratically elected government, widely accepted across all social strata and by all political parties. The economy is no longer in free-fall. Inflation has dropped to 8 percent, from 40 percent three years ago. The International Monetary Fund projects growth of 3½ percent this year — as opposed to negative growth for much of the previous decade. Thanks to new laws, tax revenues rose by a third last year. Just as Mr. Preval took on Haiti's gangs, so has he declared war on corruption, endemic to every sphere of life. This shows real political courage.

I am convinced Haiti is at a turning point. Long the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, seemingly forever mired in political turmoil, it at long last has a golden chance to begin to rebuild itself. With the help of the international community — and the United Nations in particular — it can. Haiti has seen five multinational interventions over the last decade. In each case, we left too soon, before real change could take hold. Or we let our efforts be too circumscribed — restricted, say, to trying to maintain security or supervise an election.

This time will be different. That is why, in October, I will ask the Security Council to renew the U.N.'s mandate in Haiti for a term beyond the customary six months. In clear language, I assured the Haitian government — and the people — that we intend to stay until our mission is accomplished, consistent with their wishes, however long it takes.

Haiti is nearing the end of the first phase of its nascent recovery — that of ensuring peace and security. The second phase must focus on social and economic development. More than ever, Haiti needs our energetic help in building functioning civil institutions — beginning with creation of an effective and honest national police force, backed by a reformed justice system.

I was therefore immensely encouraged that, in response to my visit, the Haitian Senate last week approved ambitious new legislation aimed at reconstituting an effective and independent judiciary and creating a legal climate more conducive to economic development and foreign investment. Without such changes, the trends of global commerce, finance and tourism will continue to pass Haiti by. I called on all sectors of Haitian society — the government, business and ordinary people — to commit themselves to work together for social change. Without their mutual cooperation, Haiti cannot advance.

Above all, the ordinary people of Haiti must see tangible evidence they can look forward to a better future — starting now, not tomorrow. We must therefore assist the government in delivering what many call a "peace dividend." It's nothing grand, as our Brazilian force commander Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz explained to me. Yes, the people of Cité Soleil, like all Haitians, welcome the new peace on their streets. But more, he said, they need "the basics." Water. Food. Jobs.

Of course, this is ultimately Haiti's responsibility. But it is ours to help achieve it.

Ban  Ki-moon is the Secretary-General of the United Nations