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POLITICS: U.N. Defends Relief Efforts in Haiti

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 19 2010 (IPS) - The United Nations, which has come under heavy fire for its relatively slow relief efforts in earthquake-devastated Haiti, hit back at the international news media for “sensational” reporting.

Haitians displaced by the powerful earthquake receive water out of a truck in the Canapé-Vert area of Haiti capital Port-au-Prince.  Credit: UN Photo/Sophia Paris

Haitians displaced by the powerful earthquake receive water out of a truck in the Canapé-Vert area of Haiti capital Port-au-Prince. Credit: UN Photo/Sophia Paris

Speaking to reporters Tuesday during a video-conference from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, David Wimhurst said some of the published reports out of Haiti were “really exaggerated”.

Wimhurst, a Canadian national and chief of information for the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), said the erroneous news reporting was having a negative impact on the relief efforts being undertaken by the United Nations and its agencies on the ground.

He dismissed reports of “mass looting” as incorrect, and denied that the United Nations has “not fed people for days”. He did not single out or identify any news organisation by name.

Wimhurst, who claimed he was a former news reporter who had graduated from the prestigious graduate school of journalism at Columbia University, said the United Nations was being “unfairly attacked” when its staffers were working 24 hours a day in the humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti.

The United Nations has been criticised primarily for a lack of coordination in its relief efforts and for the breakdown of its food delivery and distribution system.

The world body says it is providing food and relief supplies to more than 200,000 people amongst some three million Haitians displaced or directly affected by the earthquake.

Asked about the breakdown, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that “in the initial period, there have been some difficulties and some bottlenecks in delivering our relief items”.

But since then, he told reporters Tuesday, the United Nations has set up 15 food distribution centres.

“The number of people who will get assistance will increase to one million within this week, and within two weeks, we will increase our assistance to at least two million people. So, that is our target.” he said.

Ban also admitted that the situation was “overwhelming”.

“I am sure that we will have better organized, structured systems to deliver food,” he added.

In the airport, which is currently under the control of U.S. military forces, there were reports that non-U.S. flights arriving with humanitarian assistance were not given priority, triggering complaints from several countries.

But Ban said the airport is now giving priority to “humanitarian aircraft”.

“This is a dual priority slotting system at the airport. And we have opened new corridors on land and, as I told you earlier, we may be able to have port facilities opening sometime next week,” he said.

If and when the port is open, he said, it will “very significantly improve our capacity to deliver the outpouring of relief items.”

“That is what we are working on very hard. Even so, there may be some complaints and difficulties and inconveniencies in [creating] a better organised delivery system,” Ban said.

“We need to be a little bit more patient, but we are working day and night, so you can trust the United Nations and the international community’s work,” he declared.

Meanwhile, the 15-member Security Council Tuesday approved a proposal to send an additional 2,000 soldiers and 1,500 police officers to Haiti.

Currently, there are over 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers with MINUSTAH, 3,000 of whom were based in Port-au-Prince.

But since most member states are habitually slow in responding to requests for more peacekeepers, the United Nations has no clear indication as to when these soldiers and police officers will arrive in Haiti.

Asked about the time frame, Ban said: “We have already received some indications, proposals from several countries. Therefore, I believe that the deployment of additional troops and police forces will be done quite quickly”.

“And it is very important that we deploy them as quickly as possible, because in every aspect of our operation there, we are running against time,” the secretary-general added.

Providing the latest update on Haiti late Tuesday, Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), said that Haitian authorities have reported that 70,000 bodies have been buried and 200,000 people so far are estimated to have died in the earthquake.

The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) has reported that search and rescue teams have rescued a total of 90 people.

At least 46 international personnel serving with the United Nations in Haiti have been confirmed dead, and dozens, including MINUSTAH peacekeepers, remain unaccounted for and are probably buried under the rubble.

Although more U.N. staff are urgently needed on the ground, Andrus said, the United Nations is finding it difficult to provide food, water and accommodation for those who are already in the country.

“We know that accommodation at the U.N. logistics base has reached its saturation point,” he complained.

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