Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today issued an urgent call to the international community to assist Haiti following yesterday’s catastrophic earthquake that has devastated the impoverished Caribbean nation’s capital.
Buildings and infrastructure in Port-au-Prince suffered extensive damage, while basic services, including water and electricity are near the brink of collapse. The full extent of casualties is still unknown, Mr. Ban said.
Tens of thousands of people are living on the streets, while many more are still trapped under rubble. It is estimated that one-third of the 9-million strong population of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has been affected by the disaster.
“Clearly, a major relief effort will be required,” the Secretary-General told an informal emergency meeting of the General Assembly.
Joined by the UN Special Envoy for Haiti, former United States President Bill Clinton, Mr. Ban added that the crisis triggered by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake “rivals, if not exceeds,” the damage wrought by a series of hurricanes that devastated Haiti in 2008.
The UN confirmed that 16 peacekeepers serving with the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) – 1 Argentinean, 11 Brazilians, 1 Chadian and 3 Jordanians – died in the quake, and officials believe the number of fatalities is likely to rise in the coming days.
The Christopher Hotel, which houses the UN’s headquarters, along with other buildings hosting the world body have collapsed, leaving some 150 staff members – including Hédi Annabi, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative – unaccounted for.
The earthquake is a “tragedy for the Haitian people and also for the UN,” said Alain Le Roy, the world body’s top peacekeeping official.
It is expected, he said, that this earthquake will claim the largest number of lives ever in a UN mission, even topping the 2003 terrorist bombing of the world body’s headquarters in Iraq, in which 22 people, including the top UN envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed.
MINUSTAH was set up in 2004 and currently has more than 9,000 military and police personnel and nearly 2,000 civilian staff.
Some 3,000 of the mission’s troops and police are in and around Port-au-Prince, and are helping to maintain order and assist in relief efforts. They have also started to clear some of the capital’s main roads to allow aid and rescuers to reach those in need.
“The first priority is search and rescue,” with teams from the US, China, France, the Dominican Republic and other nations on their way to Haiti, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said today.
Mr. Ban – who has been in close consultation with the governments of Haiti, the US and others – told reporters after the Assembly meeting that many countries are immediately sending search and rescue teams, aircraft assets, mobile hospitals and other humanitarian items which are crucially needed at this time.
He voiced hope that “the community of nations will unite in its resolve and help Haiti to overcome this latest trauma and begin the work of social and economic reconstruction that will carry this proud nation forward.”
Speaking to reporters this morning, the Secretary-General expressed gratitude to nations rushing aid to the victims of the quake, calling for the world to “come to Haiti’s aid in this hour of need.”
Mr. Ban is dispatching Edmond Mulet, his former Special Representative to Haiti and current Assistant-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, to the country to assume full command of the UN mission.
In addition, he ordered $10 million to be released from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to kick-start humanitarian relief efforts. A flash appeal for Haiti is expected to be launched within the next few days.