The Haiti earthquake caused potentially the United Nations’ worst human loss in a single day, as its soldiers and civilians in Haiti were caught up in the tragedy while performing their appointed task of bringing succour to a population already afflicted by impoverishment and failed government.
At least 36 UN personnel have been confirmed dead, including 22 peacekeepers, and some 150 staff are missing, including the world body’s two top officials in the country.
An Estonian security officer was rescued from the rubble of the UN’s peacekeeping headquarters on Thursday, more than 36 hours after the earthquake. “It was a small miracle,” said Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general.
“This is a tragedy for the United Nations as well as the Haitian people,” according to Elisabeth Byrs, Geneva spokeswoman of the UN humanitarian affairs office. “The priority is to save lives, get people out of the rubble and treat the wounded. Every hour counts.”
The Haiti disaster comes after a tough year for the UN, with losses in Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere, and concerns among staff, officials and member states that the UN is increasingly becoming a direct target in modern conflicts.
Barack Obama, US president, said at the White House on Thursday: “Our hearts go out to the people at the UN, who have suffered the gravest losses in their history.”
The UN community in Haiti includes a 9,000-strong military and police force, Minustah, and staff from a range of UN development agencies who are already staffing the front line in the relief effort. It was the Brazilian-led peace force that was hardest hit in the quake when its hotel headquarters collapsed.
Minustah was dispatched to Haiti in 2004 after US marines took Bertrand Aristide, the president, into exile following a coup. In recent months, members of the UN Security Council that mandates the force, began to look to Haiti as a potential success story among peacekeeping operations. From 2010, the emphasis would gradually switch away from Minustah acting as a security force towards building up local structures to allow a withdrawal.
On the development front, international donors increased their funding of Haiti in April by $350m over two years. In his latest report on Haiti in September, Mr Ban recommended a progressive reconfiguration of the peace force – some military personnel would be replaced by police units as local authorities were trained to take over more security functions in what he acknowledged was still a fragile security situation.
An operation in 2007 in which UN forces cracked down on gang crime in the notorious Cité Soleil district of the capital would be the last such large-scale action, Mr Ban said. In future, there was “substantial reason to believe Haiti is moving . . . towards a brighter future of peaceful development”.
The aftermath of the earthquake threatens to push the situation back to square one, creating a development challenge that will require a new sustained effort by the international community to rebuild the shattered state.