10 October 2008
Press Conference

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


Haiti was going through a time of challenges, but also a time of hope, Hédi Annabi, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for that country, said at a Headquarters press conference today, where he provided an update on the situation in the island nation in the wake of four devastating hurricanes.

Mr. Annabi, who heads the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), said the four hurricanes that had struck Haiti in as many weeks had “comprehensively destroyed what little infrastructure there was”.  Some 800,000 Haitians had lost their homes or been directly affected.  The crisis caused by rising global prices had now been exacerbated by a food emergency wrought by the destruction of the country’s crops.  Bridges and roads had also been destroyed or washed away.

He said MINUSTAH and the United Nations country team had helped in evacuations, shoring up collapsing infrastructure and helping to bring emergency supplies to people in need.  It had also organized an air bridge to Gonaïves, the most affected city.  The hurricanes had changed the country, and United Nations agencies, particularly the World Food Programme (WFP), were now involved in distributing assistance.  WFP had reached some 700,000 people with logistical support from the Mission.  However, a lot more than immediate assistance was needed.  Prospects must be created for economic recovery.

Mr. Annabi went on to say it was also a time for hope, as the need to respond had helped “unblock” a five-month political stand-off over a new Government.  Parliament had confirmed a new Prime Minister and Government, and a new sense of solidarity had been created, in which civil society also participated.  The international community must now help the new Government “deliver” its response to basic needs.  What had happened was way beyond the Government or the Mission to address.  It was an exceptional situation that required a large-scale effort.  An earlier consolidation plan had defined five benchmarks:  the political and institutional situation; extension of State authority, including border management; strengthening the security sector; enhancing justice and corrections; and economic and social development.

He said he had briefed the Security Council on 8 October (see Press Release SC/9469) on the progress achieved, stressing that without social and economic development, progress in any other area might unravel very quickly.  “A poor and hungry population is not compatible with peace and security.”  While realizing that these were difficult times, what was needed in Haiti was a small amount on a global scale.  It would, however, deliver an “extraordinarily” good return on investment and prevent future costs of instability.  Yesterday’s announcement by the World Bank that it would make $25 million available for the reconstruction of basic infrastructure was welcome.

Asked about clean-up efforts in Gonaïves, the Special Representative said he had visited the city twice -- once four days after a hurricane had engulfed the city in water and mud, and the second time on 2 October.  During the second visit, the water had receded, but parts of the city had remained covered in wet mud, while in other parts, the mud had dried and turned into cement.  The Government had made substantial efforts to deploy heavy equipment, including 45 heavy trucks and dozens of bulldozers.

He said MINUSTAH had placed its engineers at the Government’s disposal but one could only help within limited resources.  The situation could still get worse, as the hurricane season was only halfway over.  An estimated 3 million cubic metres of water covered the city, where not a single house was undamaged.  Looking like a war zone, the city was “as close as it comes to hell on earth”.

The disaster was the result also of environmental degradation, he said, pointing out that only 2 per cent of Haiti’s territory was covered with forest.  Not only did the country need “hundreds of millions of dollars” to improve drainage systems and other infrastructure, reforestation efforts were also needed, in parallel with the development of alternative energy sources.

Asked about the Mission’s transition from a peacekeeping force to a humanitarian operation, Mr. Annabi said the Security Council had set up MINUSTAH as a stabilization force, mandated to focus on security and the rule of law.  However, stability had several dimensions, including the economic and social dimensions, for which the international community’s attention was essential; otherwise, all progress could be reversed extremely fast.  Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but its problems could be solved.

In response to a question about Haiti’s jails, he said overcrowding and bad infrastructure made their condition extremely difficult.  There were 8,000 inmates spread among 17 jails.  The jail in Port-au-Prince housed 3,850 inmates, which amounted to 0.5 square metres per prisoner; the international norm being 2.5 square metres.  A new facility for 1,000 prisoners was being built, which could result in an easing of the overcrowding in some six to eight months.  Cells and facilities were also being refurbished.

The Government had adopted a five-year corrections reform plan, he continued, adding that 227 corrections officers had graduated this year.  It was the first time in 10 years that any corrections officer had graduated from the police academy, and the 227 graduate officers represented a 50 per cent increase in the total number of corrections personnel.

Responding to another question, he said he had not heard specific statements by the Haitian President requesting the United States not to repatriate deportees during the present difficult times, but he could imagine that the Government would not wish to exacerbate security problems by taking back deportees with criminal records.

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For information media • not an official record