Press conference on Economic and Social Council Mission to Haiti

A recent mission to Haiti by the Economic and Social Council's Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Haiti had been struck by the magnitude of the challenges in that country, but encouraging factors included the achievement of a measurable degree of political stability, John McNee, Permanent Representative of Canada and head of the mission, said at a Headquarters press conference today.

He said stability had been achieved through the holding of presidential, parliamentary and local elections facilitated by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), adding that there had also been a considerable recent increase in the level of basic security. The mission's ability to walk freely in Cité Soleil, which would have been unthinkable in one of the "toughest" neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince even three or four months ago, was thanks to the strong leadership of Edmond Mulet, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, and the MINUSTAH Force Commander, on the one hand, and to the decisiveness of President René Préval, on the other.

They had decided to go into Cité Soleil and "take on the gangs head-on on their home turf" in an operation that had been very successful, he said. The mission, which also included representatives from the Permanent Missions of Benin, Brazil, Chile, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti, had also been struck by the Government's commitment to achieve both immediate gains and long-term development, and by the engagement of the United Nations and bi- and multilateral donors.

He said the Advisory Group followed the situation in Haiti closely and tried to advise the Government on long-term development strategies, with the aim of promoting recovery and stability, and ensuring the country received the sustained long-term international support it needed. The Group's last visit had taken place precisely two years ago, and it had returned this year to assess progress and reinforce the long-term commitment of the United Nations to the people of Haiti. It had also taken a close look at how MINUSTAH and the Organization's funds and programmes worked and coordinated on the ground.

In a "particularly intense" visit, the mission had met with the President, the Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet, he said. It had also met with parliamentarians and representatives of major donors and the private sector. Besides Cité Soleil, it had visited Ouanaminthe, a provincial town in the north-east, to see conditions outside the capital. The next step was to report to the Economic and Social Council, and the Advisory Group would be convening "shortly" to come up with recommendations and share its analysis with the wider United Nations membership. It was too early to predict what those recommendations might be, but it was imperative that Haiti remain on the international agenda and receive appropriate support.

Asked about progress in the provision of basic goods and services throughout the country, Mr. McNee said tha,t besides huge infrastructure challenges, what was also striking was the flow of basic foods like eggs, chickens and bananas across from the Dominican Republic, since they would have been thought to be home grown.

Regarding the success in securing Cité Soleil, he told another correspondent that the situation remained fragile and it would be foolhardy to predict that the problem had been solved. Some, but not all, key gang leaders had been arrested and the assumption was that the others had "gone to ground". On the other hand, local residents had been surprisingly receptive towards MINUSTAH, whereas in an earlier phase they would not have dared welcome a visiting mission, even in passing, for fear of reprisals. The real challenge was creating employment and economic growth that would give people an incentive to pursue a peaceful path rather than a criminal one.

Another journalist asked what role Canadians were playing in terms of securing Cité Soleil and how long Canadian police officers would remain in the country.

Mr. McNee replied that the operation had been led by the Brazilian battalion responsible for that sector, which had demonstrated impressive professionalism and treated the local population respectfully. Police officers from Montreal and other cities would be in Haiti as long as MINUSTAH was there, as part of a major Canadian commitment, including training the Haitian police.

Asked if there was a role for the United Nations in taking on Haitian drug lords, he said the real question was how to reform the entire security sector and inculcate respect for the rule of law. Reforming the police and the judicial system was a long-term task that was very much related to building Government capacity to fulfil its role.

The same journalist asked why the United Nations could take on the "petty gangs" in the slums but not the rich gangs with connections among the governing elite.

Mr. McNee, while acknowledging international efforts to interdict the serious problems occasioned by the drug trade, stressed that the mission's mandate had been to look at how the international community could best help Haiti implement development strategies.

Responding to a question about long-term strategy to bring Haiti out of its current situation, he noted that tourism was one of the main economic elements of the Caribbean region. Haiti, an "extraordinarily beautiful country", had once had a significant, but now withered, tourism industry. One entrepreneur had transformed the local Club Med into a Haitian hotel with a high occupancy rate, according to the Minister for Tourism. In addition, the largely agricultural country had once grown high-grade coffee that had fetched a good price abroad.

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For information media - not an official record