Briefing correspondents at UN Headquarters in New York just a few days after visiting Haiti along with the head of the World Food Programme (WFP), Catherine Russell said “the current situation of insecurity is unacceptable.
“Women and children are dying. Schools and public spaces should always be safe. Collectively the world is failing the Haitian people.”
An estimated 5.2 million – close to half the population – need humanitarian support, including three million children.
Institutions and services children rely on “are barely functional” the Executive Director warned, while violent armed groups control more than 60 per cent of the capital Port au Prince, and parts of the country’s most fertile agricultural areas.
“Haitians and our team there tell me it’s never been worse” she said, with unprecedented malnutrition, grinding poverty, a crippled economy, and a continuing cholera outbreak.
All this “while flooding and earthquakes continue to remind us just how vulnerable Haiti is to climate change and natural disasters”, she added.
Raped and burnt alive
Ms. Russell recounted some of the shocking testimony she had heard talking to women and girls at a centre for survivors of gender-based violence, which has now reached “staggering levels”.
“An 11-year-old girl told me in the softest of voices that five men had grabbed her off the street. Three of them raped her. She was eight months pregnant when we spoke – and gave birth just a few days later.
“One woman told me that armed men had barged into her house and raped her. She said her 20-year-old sister resisted so strongly that they killed her by setting her on fire. Then they burned down their house.”
The UNICEF chief said she had heard many similar stories, “part of a new strategy” by armed groups.
“They rape girls and women, and they burn their homes to make them more vulnerable and more easily controlled. Because if they break the women, they’ve broken the foundation of the communities.”
Room for hope
She said amid the horror, there had been “some hope” – in the form of extraordinary teachers, health workers, paediatricians, and young people themselves: “A 13-year-old girl, Serafina, told me that she picked doctor as a profession because ‘I love when people take care of other people’.
“These children are what the parents of Haiti are pinning their hopes on. We should all be doing the same.”
The UNICEF chief said she was very proud of the UN humanitarians doing their best on the ground, most of the Haitians. “Many have had to move homes, some multiple times, to find safety from the violence and kidnappings for ransom.”
She said a bare minimum of $720 million is needed for humanitarian support but less than a quarter of that had been received.
Ms. Russell outlined urgent steps she said need to be taken, including providing immediate extra funding and a better response, a long-term and sustained humanitarian effort, preparedness and resilience-building for natural disasters to come and improved protection for humanitarians.
The Human Rights Council-appointed expert who has long experience in the country having helped set up the National Police in 1995, said beyond the gang violence and displacement, land grabs by oligarchs in the northeast had made conditions worse for thousands already living on the edge.
In this context of chronic insecurity, the Haitian authorities face immense challenges. But the situation is not irreversible”, he said.
“Much can be done to address the structural and economic challenges that have led to the current crisis. And this, quickly, and with few means. The State has a fundamental role to play in this regard, as guarantor of the human rights of the population.”
International force needed
Mr. O’Neill said the deployment of a “specialized international force” alongside national police, was “essential to restore the freedom of movement of populations.”
He added that an embargo on arms coming mainly from the United States, established by the UN Security Council, must be immediately implemented.
He said Haiti was at a turning point. “It is urgent to take action. The survival of an entire nation is at stake. The country has the choice to recover, to demonstrate its will to overcome the crisis to move towards a better future or to resign itself and sink further into chaos.
“Ensuring the security and protection of the population, overcoming structural institutional shortcomings, and restoring confidence in public institutions are fundamental prerequisites for holding free and transparent elections and for consolidating the rule of law.”
Special Rapporteurs and independent experts such as Mr. O’Neill, serve in their individual capacity and are independent of any Government or Organization. They are not UN staff and do not receive payment for their work.