INTERVIEW: Edmond Mulet, former Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Haiti and Head of MINUSTAH
Edmond Mulet recently returned to his former post of Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, after more than a year in Haiti as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) – his second time in those roles. He was deployed to Haiti in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake which devastated parts of the Caribbean country, killing many Haitians and UN staff, including his predecessor Hedi Annabi. Mr. Mulet was educated in Guatemala, Canada, United States and Switzerland. Born in Guatemala in 1951, he is married and has two children.
UN News: What did you do before you joined the United Nations?
Edmond Mulet: At my age, you can imagine I’ve done many, many things in my lifetime. My first work was when I was ten years old, working for a daily newspaper in Guatemala. I worked as a proof-reader, as a reporter, and then I had a column. Then I studied law and became a lawyer. I was very much involved in the struggle against the military dictatorships in Guatemala, and I was in jail a couple of times. I had to leave Guatemala – my home country – because of threats. I participated in elections, knowing that I would lose, or knowing that the results would not be the real ones. I lost some elections, won some elections. One day, I won an election and the next day there was a coup d’etat and they cancelled the whole thing.
Finally in 1985, I was elected to the Guatemalan congress and I was re-elected in 1990. In 1992, I was the president of the National Assembly in Guatemala. A year later I was appointed ambassador to the United States. I went back to Guatemala after three years, and I was Secretary-General of my political party. I was involved in legal issues, I had my own legal office. I was appointed ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, I was there for five and a half years. And then I was recruited to come to the UN.
SRSG Edmond Mulet visits the Brazilian peacekeepers responsible for the Cite Soleil neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, during his first deployment to Haiti, between 2005-2007. UN Photo/Sophia Paris
UN News: How did that recruitment happen and what were your expectations and first impressions?
Edmond Mulet: After leaving Brussels, I went through Washington to see some friends. A friend of mine said “Secretary-General Kofi Annan is looking for someone to be his representative in Haiti – would you be interested? They need someone from Latin America who speaks French, and has a political and diplomatic background; you have the profile. Can you send me your CV?” So I sent it and I then didn’t hear from her or anybody for several weeks or months!
But I would hear comments – the minister of foreign affairs for Argentina, for example. I saw him once and he said “someone from the UN called me asking for references about you.” I would hear things like that but there was no direct contact with the UN. In April 2006, I was rowing in a kayak in Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan. I had my cell-phone on me and the phone rings and someone from New York says “Mr. Mulet, you’re a candidate for this position, you’re on a list – are you interested in this position?” I said I would be interested. I came to New York and was interviewed by this panel.
I remember Hedi Annabi – I had never met him before – was the chair of the interviewing panel. He said “it’s a one hour interview, thirty minutes in English, thirty minutes in French.” And it was very difficult, although of course I had read and prepared myself. They said to me, “thank you very much, go back to your country, this is going to take some time and we’ll be in touch with you.”
The following day I was at JFK [airport], literally with my foot in the airplane and my cell-phone rings again and they say “Ambassador Mulet, where are you?”
“I’m going back to Guatemala,” I said, and the reply was “Well, you better stay because the panel wants to accelerate the selection process.”
I had to cancel my flight, take my suitcase off the airplane, delaying the flight for other passengers, come back to Manhattan and go back to a hotel. In the evening I had a meeting with Mark Malloch-Brown, the Deputy Secretary-General at the time, and he said, “I would like Secretary-General Kofi Annan to interview you tomorrow.” This was on 3 May, 2006; I had never met Kofi Annan.
So I had this interview with Kofi Annan. Afterwards, he said “Let me think about it and I’ll be in touch with you.” I left and half an hour later I was in Times Square, walking back to my hotel, and the phone rings and Hedi Annabi says “The Secretary-General asked me to call you and to ask if you would be willing to be his representative in Haiti?”
SRSG Edmond Mulet with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the then-Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hedi Annabi, during Mr. Mulet’s first deployment to Haiti. Mr. Annabi, who replaced Mr. Mulet in 2007, was killed in the earthquake. UN Photo/Logan Abassi
I said “yes, I’m very honoured.” And then I went to a lobby of a building – it’s very noisy in Times Square – and phoned my wife in Guatemala. I told her I’d just been selected to be the head of MINUSTAH in Haiti. “That’s great,” she said, “Congratulations – and what’s the salary?” I said I didn’t know and she replied “you accepted a job and you don’t even know what the pay is?!”
And that’s how it all started. I was here in New York for three or four days of briefings. In Guatemala, some friends and I had founded the Group of Friends of the UN, and I was very much involved in supporting UN activities there. But I had never worked for the UN. And that’s how I arrived in Haiti as head of MINUSTAH.
Having been the Guatemalan ambassador in Washington and having been the Guatemalan ambassador to the European Union, I always thought that maybe one day I might come to the UN through the front door, I never thought I would come in via the kitchen door!
UN News: What were your first impressions when you arrived to take up your post as the head of MINUSTAH?
Edmond Mulet: I thought it was irresponsible for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to send someone like me to a mission like Haiti with not enough preparation!
I think we have improved with newcomers to the system but when I landed there, with all the acronyms, it was a big, steep learning curve for me. And maybe it was also good that I was not very well-informed about rules, limitations and regulations; because maybe if I had known how constraining the situation was in my role, I probably would not have done many of the things I was able to do. But since the very beginning, I felt at ease working with all my colleagues and very honoured to be part of this effort. Also, I was in awe in meetings here in New York and in Haiti, seeing Latin Americans, Africans, Asians and Europeans all working together with the same goals – it’s really fantastic. I sometimes amused myself by trying to identify the nationalities of all the people around the table.
A search and rescue team searches for survivors at an area where a bank previously stood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/Marco Dormino
UN News Center: You were in MINUSTAH from 2005 to 2007, then came to UN Headquarters in New York to take up a post in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. What was it like adjusting to UN Headquarters after your time in the field?
Edmond Mulet: In Haiti, I would probably instruct, give an order, or suggest something and it would happen immediately. People would follow up, and I could see the immediate results of the decision being taken. And the interaction with the host country, with local authorities, the president, civil society, parliamentarians – all of that was very interesting in many ways.
Being in New York, I always felt that I missed the action of a mission, that I missed being in the field. You’re far removed from that at UN Headquarters, it’s a more strategic approach. Of course, this is also fascinating because you’re dealing with so many issues around the world, all very diverse and distinct and I enjoy both. But, being in the field was, I think, very rewarding in the sense that you could see the immediate results of your work.
UN News: Where were you and what were you doing on 12 January 2010 when the earthquake struck Haiti?
Edmond Mulet: I was coming back from my annual leave in Guatemala, flying to New York. Nowadays, what we do as soon as we land is turn on our Blackberries and this is what I did. I landed around 6 p.m. at JFK [airport], and the first news that I read was “Earthquake in Haiti.” It was barely an hour after the earthquake struck. We didn’t know what had happened, the dimension of the tragedy – we had no idea. I went directly from the airport to the office and we stayed up all night long trying to get information and news of what was going on.
UN News: What was going through your mind?
Edmond Mulet: We didn’t have enough information at that moment. We didn’t know if it was a big one or a small one. Communications were cut off. There was very little information coming out of Haiti. Bits and pieces of information, but no real picture of what was going on. We had heard that the MINUSTAH Headquarters [located within the Hotel Christopher in Port-au-Prince] had been damaged but we didn’t know how much.
We knew there was no communication between MINUSTAH Headquarters at the Christopher Hotel, and the UN Logistics Base at the airport. The Logistics Base had sent some people walking quite a long distance to the Christopher Hotel to find out exactly what the situation was there. At around 10 or 11 p.m., we got a report that the Christopher Hotel had just disappeared. Pulverized. There was nothing there. And they were trying to find survivors and help injured colleagues and friends and staff.
We really didn’t know, we really didn’t know… We didn’t have the names of the missing. The following day, in a meeting with the Secretary-General, we agreed that I had to go down there as soon as possible.
SRSG Edmond Mulet hugs Tarmo Joveer, a MINUSTAH staff member who was rescued after being trapped for 38 hours under the rubble of the destroyed MINUSTAH Headquarters in Port-au-Prince. UN Photo/Marco Dormino
UN News: How did you balance the need to do your job against the uncertainty over the fates of so many friends, colleagues and others in Haiti?
Edmond Mulet: It’s not easy. Many things go through your mind. You speculate a lot: What about this? What about that…? Information is coming in little by little, it doesn’t come all together, so you probably have time to digest everything.
We didn’t know if Hedi Annabi or Luiz Carlos da Costa [MINUSTAH’s deputy head] and many other staff were still alive or not. There were rumours, for example, that the National Palace had also been completely destroyed. We didn’t know if President Preval was alive or not, nor the prime minister. We had news that most ministries had been destroyed. We really didn’t know.
If we had received the news all together, it probably would have been unbearable in many ways and would have just… I mean, the way it happened and the way information was flowing in maybe helped us to manage it a in a better way – and when I say manage it, I mean the process that goes on inside you, the sadness, the sorrow. It’s very, very difficult.
UN News: Two days after the earthquake, the Secretary-General asked you to return to Haiti. You had just spent three intense years there and were now being asked to return during one of the country’s worst crises. What went through your mind?
Edmond Mulet: I really wanted to go back. I really wanted to be there. I had no choice. I’m sure that anybody in a similar situation would have done exactly the same thing. I volunteered, it was my decision. And, everybody agreed that since I had been there before, had been the head of the mission and knew Haiti, that I was probably better placed than anybody else to go there and find out what was going on – always with the hope and expectation that everything would be OK, that everything wouldn’t be that bad, that I would find my friends and colleagues alive.
I put together a team of colleagues who had been in Haiti before, to help me, and we flew out on Wednesday, 13 January, to Miami. But the airport was not operational and we didn’t know how we’d get in. The US Coast Guard offered to transport us but there were no flights that day. It was only on Thursday, 14 January, that we were able to fly in a US Coast Guard airplane, with rescue teams with rescue dogs. No seats, just holding on here and there, and this is how we finally landed in Haiti.
When we landed in Port-au-Prince, it was confirmed that [MINUSTAH] headquarters was completely pulverized. We saw the list of missing, but no confirmation yet of anyone being killed. Some people had been rescued, some were injured. So I moved directly into the Logistics Base and when I got there, at that moment, President Rene Preval was having a meeting there with the international community, with ambassadors. So I went in to the meeting room and it was very, very moving, very emotional – just embracing and hugging President Preval and everybody else there. They provided me with information about the situation.
After that, I immediately had a meeting with my staff and with the Force Commander. The first thing I did was to give the order to the Force Commander to use our military assets to dig mass graves. That was very important because of the number of the people killed, the bodies. It was terrible. It was almost 48 hours after the earthquake and we had to deal with that. Of course, I said to the Force Commander, we are not going to request any authorization from the government – there was no government, no structures. Just identify the appropriate land and just do it. We did that in conjunction with the Red Cross, and tried to identify the bodies as much as we could.
I wanted to go to the Christopher Hotel. It took a good hour and half to get from the Logistics Base to the hotel. Going through those streets I could see the devastation and the magnitude of the earthquake and the suffering and the bodies on the streets, and people coming out of the rubble injured – then I could sense just how bad it was.
SRSG Edmond Mulet leads his staff in a moment of silence at a memorial service for those killed in the earthquake a week after it struck. UN Photo/Sophia Paris
UN News: What condition were people in?
Edmond Mulet: Our colleagues in the mission were in shock. Some of them were wandering like zombies, not knowing what to do, what to say, where to go. They had not slept for more than 48 hours, having witnessed and suffered that situation.
And on the streets, you could see the same thing. People carrying bodies and trying to manage on their own. Many children were brought to our Logistics Base, to the Argentinian Level One Hospital that serves MINUSTAH. Many people would come in injured and many people would just leave children there, children who had lost their parents, hoping that us – MINUSTAH or the international community – would just take care of them.
We established a camp hospital at the Logistics Base, with medical teams from MINUSTAH’s different contingents. Eventually we had 600-700 people there whom we were trying to help and assist. It was very chaotic, which is normal in a situation like that – the whole leadership of the mission was not there.
The Force Commander had been away the day of the earthquake. He was in Miami with his wife, and he was returning the morning of the earthquake but his wife told him “why don’t you stay one more day?” and he stayed one more day in Miami. If he had come back he would have died just as 18 of his staff – a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, two majors, a lieutenant, two Brazilian generals that were visiting, his personal assistant – died at the Christopher Hotel. If he had been there also he would have died. But he came the day after the earthquake and was very effective.
In spite of the losses and in spite of the shock, MINUSTAH’s military and police components were operational a few minutes after the earthquake, they were very much on top of things dealing with the situation as much as they could.
SRSG Edmond Mulet greets Haitian government officials at a memorial service to mark the first three days of mourning for all of those who perished in the earthquake. UN Photo/Sophia Paris
UN News: Can you give an idea of an average working day in those first months on the ground there?
Edmond Mulet: I lived for seven months in a little cell at a Brazilian camp with no windows, with a shower in the corner and sleeping on a cot. This is where I would spend my nights. But for me it was like a five-star hotel compared to many of my colleagues.
We concentrated everybody at the Logistics Base, not only MINUSTAH, but also staff from UN funds, agencies, NGOS – everybody was located there at the airport. And we opened our doors to everybody, with many people sleeping in sleeping bags, in tents, cars, on sofas, chairs. This went on for weeks and weeks.
Next to my provisional office was the only shower we had for 300 people. I would be receiving heads of state, ministers, delegations, etc., and people would be coming in and out of the shower wrapped up in towels because that was the only shower.
In the first days and weeks, it was about trying to find survivors. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came five days after the earthquake and we were still taking some survivors out of the rubble of the Christopher Hotel. By then we had found the bodies of many of our colleagues. The Secretary-General was able to bring back to New York the bodies of the head and deputy head of the mission, of Hedi Annabi and of Luiz Carlos da Costa.
And then there were the ceremonies. When I had 18 Brazilian coffins in front of me, then the Jordanians, then the French, then the Canadians, the Pakistanis, all the different nationalities, all the military contingents, and all the civilians…
Many colleagues had lost spouses, children, dear friends. Yet you could see many of them coming to work every day and giving everything they had. The Deputy Force Commander, a Chilean general named Toro , who had lost his wife in the Montana Hotel – and he knew that, we found her body several weeks later – he would come to work every day, despite knowing that his wife was under the rubble of the Montana Hotel.
Haiti’s then-President, Rene Preval, at a meeting with SRSG Edmond Mulet.
UN News: How do you respond to criticisms that MINUSTAH was not doing enough – for example, that most of the rubble from the earthquake was still where it fell?
Edmond Mulet: I thought it was very unfair for people who would come for only one day to Haiti, “humanitarian tourists” or reporters, just landing there and leaving in the afternoon, saying “Well, nothing has happened here.”
Not having gone through the ordeal, not having dealt with the problem, they could not see the difference as we had from one day to another, one week to another, from one month to another.
One day I tried to assure some of these visitors that the rubble they saw on the streets wasn’t the same rubble that was there a week before, a month before. People were removing rubble from their houses and land. MINUSTAH, the UN and other partners, USAID, and the government were picking up that rubble everyday. And you can still see rubble on the streets of Haiti today, but it’s new rubble so that means things are moving.
What I said to my colleagues was that, like in airplanes, when the [cabin] pressure drops and the oxygen masks drop and the first thing you have to do is put the mask on yourself and then assist people around you to do that. The first thing we had to do was put the mission back on its feet, and be effective in order to help victims and the government.
So I thought it was very unfair to have that kind of criticism. I knew that we were doing our best and that we were giving everything and more we had in order to help.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, SRSG Edmond Mulet and staff attend a memorial service for the former SRSG, Hedi Annabi, and Deputy SRSG Luiz Carlos da Costa before their remains were loaded on a plane and flown back to New York City with the Secretary General. UN Photo/Sophia Paris
UN News: In addition to the aftermath of the earthquake, you also had other major challenges to deal with – how did that impact on your work?
Edmond Mulet: In twelve months we had this concentration of different crises and tragedies. We had the hurricane season, with Hurricane Tomas, that affected large parts of the country. We were spared in Port-au-Prince, some floods and heavy rain but not too much damage.
Then we had the cholera outbreak, which was also a big, big problem for us. Trying to deal with that, trying to explain and also for us to understand where it came from, why it came and how it spread, and trying to help the government control it. I must say that the reaction from the government, compared to the earthquake, was very effective. And the coordination mechanisms the government established with international partners was also very effective.
And then we had the elections. The opposition didn’t want elections, they said the people in power had to leave and they would organize an interim, provisional government. Already there were discussions on who would be the minister of finance, the minister of reconstruction, minister of housing – all of them saw each other already in power. I was very much opposed to that.
Not the president, but people around the president, said “we can’t have elections in these circumstances, let’s extend our mandates, of the president, of the parliament, whoever is in power right now, let’s extend it for one or two years until the situation is normalized.” But that also was not the right approach.
President Preval asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to send an assessment team to see if elections were technically possible. And the conclusion was yes – there is political will, the money is there, the organization is there, MINUSTAH is there to provide security and logistical support, elections are possible.
It was very important to have those elections as the constitution established, or we would have been facing a power vacuum or instability, again. And Haitians have been working so hard for so many years to have political stability that going again into an irregular situation…So convincing political actors and the government to go into these elections was also something we had to deal with. Not having elections would have generated consequences that would have been damaging for the reconstruction process in Haiti. When you have, like we’ve had in Haiti, provisional or interim governments, the first thing we do is organize elections so there can be a legitimate government, one the international community can work with for the future.
Then we had the political crisis, and we have to say it – the fraud, the intimidation, the manipulation, the party in power tying to stay in power, the national revolt. We had four days of complete paralysis in those first days of December after the preliminary results were announced, when the official candidate was placed to go to the second round.
But all is well that ends well, and in the end Haiti had a second round. For the first time in Haitian history, they had a run-off election at the presidential level, it was the first time in Haitian history that the two main candidates of the opposition went to the run-off election, and the first time in Haiti that there was a handover of power from a democratically-elected president to another democratically-elected president from the opposition.
UN News: Given your special role and involvement, how optimistic or pessimistic are you about Haiti’s future?
Edmond Mulet: I cannot but be optimistic. I think the elections produced a new generation of leaders, with a new vision. There is new blood in the government. They want to do things for their country. I can see that the new team is honest, very engaged and committed to their country. So I think they’ll be able to advance on many fronts.
I cannot but be optimistic. I think the elections produced a new generation of leaders, with a new vision.
Their weakness is that President Martelly doesn’t have a political party. His base is really the population at large but he doesn’t have a political organization to back him in parliament. He doesn’t have political operators to deal with, to contact, to reach out to other political actors around the country.
Coming from outside the political system, he’s a complete outsider and that’s one of the reasons he was elected, because he represents change. He doesn’t have those tools in order to advance his own vision and his own agenda. And also one has to be reminded of the fact that even before the earthquake, Haiti was already a very weak state with very weak institutions and after the earthquake that is even worse. They lost one third of all public servants, more than 18,000 of them. This has weakened Haitian institutions even more.
Accompanied by SRSG Edmond Mulet, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon addresses the press at MINUSTAH's Logistics Base on the situation in Haiti. UN Photo/Sophia Paris
UN News: Can you see a day when there won’t be a UN peacekeeping presence in Haiti?
Edmond Mulet: It depends on the capacity of the Haitians themselves and the Haitian institutions to absorb all of what we’re doing to build these institutions. We have been building the Haitian National police capacities, the goal was to reach 14,000-15,000 of them and right now we’re near 10,000 and I must say that the Haitian National Police is probably the best well-regarded institution by the Haitians themselves. Very well structured, very disciplined. The problem they have in Haiti is that they don’t have the resources, not even to pay the Haitian National Police their salaries.
So when will MINUSTAH be leaving depends very much on their own capacity to develop their assumed responsibilities and those capacities.
And everything in the end is tied up to the economic situation. If they have national and international investment, job creation, economic activities, and the state is able to collect taxes in order to pay for services for the state, then I think there’s a way out.
Many people ask: “what is a peacekeeping mission doing in Haiti? There’s no internal conflict, there’s no guerrilla movement, there’s no civil war, there’s no conflict with any neighbouring country, there’s no border issue with anybody else, there’s no ethnic conflict, there’s no religious conflict, there’s no conflict for natural resources like with other places in the world like Congo for example, Haiti doesn’t have no oil, no diamonds, no coltan, nor anything else, so what is a peacekeeping mission doing in a place like Haiti?”
The Security Council doesn’t have another tool to face a situation of a failed state, so we are there like a backbone of a country, creating the space and the opportunities for other actors on the development side, the economic side, on the social side, for them to build those capacities in the future.
So it depends very much on our own capacities, in the international community, to deliver in a better way, but also on the Haitian side to take advantage of what we are offering.
Our proposal right now is to create a contract for Haiti, a compact – civil society, private sector, Haitian government, international community – with very clear goals, responsibilities, and obligations and with a follow-up mechanism; and see if the Haitians are doing what we expect them to do, assuming responsibilities, and us – the international community – delivering on our promises of aid, assistance, money.
But we have to tie the whole thing up around the concept of the rule of law. And rule of law is not only police, it’s not only courts, it’s not only corrections. In Haiti it’s also the issue of a civil registry, of a land registry, of functioning courts – creating the conditions and the guarantees for investors to create economic activity and break this vicious circle of assistance and donations and subsidies. I think that we have to help them to be self-sufficient in many ways and these are some of the benchmarks of the mission there.
We will be conducting an assessment in June-July of the security-political situation in Haiti. We should draw down to the levels we had before the earthquake for the military and police components, and then we’ll see how everything goes.
SRSG Edmond Mulet speaks with the press at a voting centre, during the final round of national elections in March 2011. UN Photo/MINUSTAH/Logan Abassi
UN News: This is an excerpt from an official UN document on your second appointment to be the head of MINUSTAH: “In the weeks following the devastating earthquake, Mr. Mulet demonstrated remarkable leadership and, through his resilience, strength, clear-sightedness and determination has anchored the efforts of the United Nations family, the people of Haiti, Governments of the region and the broader international community.” What do you say to that?
Edmond Mulet: I’m very grateful to the person who wrote that! The only thing I can say is that I did not do this alone. Whatever is said about the performance of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General during that year in Haiti, I think it applies to the whole group of people there. It was all of us, all of the UN team, all our colleagues and friends in MINUSTAH; [and due to] the support we got from UN Headquarters, the support we received from the Secretary-General, from the Security Council, from key member states, from embassies, from ambassadors working in Haiti. We felt confident, we felt supported.
A few days after the earthquake, I received a letter from the Secretary-General giving me carte blanche. I could do whatever I needed and whatever I wanted with the budget and the assets of MINUSTAH, putting everything at the disposition of humanitarian aid and assistance. So I was not restricted to rules and regulations. I had the trust of the Security Council, [and] the Secretary-General. When you have that kind of backing, then you can deliver, then you can be there and do things.
UN News: You spoke of the differences between field and headquarters, how rewarding field service can be. So when can we expect you back in the field?
Edmond Mulet: I’ve been back in New York only for a month now, so let me stay here for a few months and then we’ll see! For the time being, I’m here in New York, and of course, I’ll be travelling a lot to all these different missions, supervising their work and working with the Security Council on many issues. After 16 months in the field, it’s good to be back in New York.