UN Says US Military Not Cooperative in Haiti: Will the Excessive Number of Haitian Deaths Prove It?

Posted on March 2, 2010


The following Washington Post article reveals that the US government, particularly the military, provided little cooperation to the UN, aid agencies, etc. to assist Haiti’s earthquake victims.  This resulted in a delay of supplies, food and water and caused many deaths.

In addition to NGO and UN claims about the US’ unwillingness to play nice, the US  seems eerily detached from the entire humanitarian effort.   And, this is because the US never meant to engage much in this phase.  As time goes on, and we evaluate  US humanitarian assistance in one of the biggest disasters  in the Western hemisphere, the US will  point to its 15,000 -20,000 troops on the ground, 30 ships offshore, and a USAID operating like it was on steroids as evidence of its engagement, but we will find that the combined efforts of the US meant little to the average Haitian in need.  And, given that the US military, the largest US entity on the ground in Haiti, is deemed the least cooperative —  we have to wonder whether other priorities associated with development, minerals, and oil/gas occupied their time.

Here’s a quick review of US government /US military lack of assistance in the quake aftermath that undoubtedly caused the death of thousands of Haitians:

-“The all military, all the time” plane landings forced tons of aid and doctors to make overland passage from the Dominican Republic.  This delay of assistance, so critical for saving lives within the first few days, caused many unnecessary deaths.

-The US military withheld shipments at the airport of aid, food, and water as its spokesperson  repeatedly mumbled something about “not knowing where it all was supposed to go.”  This led to many deaths from dehydration, hunger, and earthquake injuries.

-The US military’s lack of direct assistance to Haitians caused many deaths as well.  The military could and should have done many things, but was obviously not authorized to do so.  One of the first things the US military should have been ordered to do, providing saving lives was a priority,  is dig latrines in all of the homeless camps to prevent deadly epidemics from the dispersion of human waste during the rainy season.   The US military should have been directed to work with local leaders to plan and implement a sane food distribution system.  Instead, the military provoked hungry Haitians in maliciously-conceived food distributions events that naturally angered Haitians.  The military followed up by issuing  propaganda about “violence” in poor neighborhoods, something denied by virtually every aid agency on the ground, and based its decision not to return to the neighborhoods on its own propaganda. Because of this attempt to demonize Haitians as “violent,” many days passed before food and water were distributed and many people died as a result.

-Digging people out of the rubble.  This was a critical first step in saving thousands of lives.   Obama should have requested all  governors to encourage fire departments within their states to send their crack search and rescue teams to Haiti. This critical, life-saving measure should not have been left up to a few local fire departments in the US to volunteer their services.  Further, the US military could have  been very helpful to the search and rescue effort by walking through neighborhoods listening for sounds of life and getting  survivors to medical treatment after the teams pulled them from the rubble.

-The US Agency for International Development put the word out to the aid community that Haiti was eating up its resources and that it may not have enough funds to attend to other disaster areas.  The aid groups got scared that their funding (most of which comes from USAID) would be cut and that personnel would have to be let go.  It was at about this time when aid officials and aid groups did an about-face regarding how best to shelter homeless quake victims during the rainy season.  Suddenly, tents were “too expensive, too big, and too inefficient.”  The decision was to distribute less expensive tarps instead — one to each of an estimated 250,0oo families.  Haitians howled at this shell game, knowing from long experience, that  tarps offer little to no protection during the rainy season.  Then, amazingly, another shift in policy:  homeless Haitians should go back to their homes to wait out the rainy season.  Do homeless people have homes?  Didn’t most Haitians come to the camps because their homes were destroyed or showed serious damage?  The plan is for structural engineers to inspect homes and, for those deemed safe, the family will be asked to return.  Those homes that are condemned will be demolished.  And the occupants?  You can bet they will be the first group of Haitians to be sent to the provinces.

And, then, this late breaking news last night:  Bill Clinton wants TENTS and TOILETS distributed!  Check out the ironies contained in this short news report.

Clinton: Haiti needs tents, toilets before rains

(AP) – 17 hours ago

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Bill Clinton says the needs of many Haiti earthquake survivors are not being met.

The U.N. special envoy for Haiti is urging U.N. officials to provide better shelter and sanitation for hundreds of thousands living in temporary camps at risk from floods and landslides.

Clinton’s press office says he asked for more tents, latrines and hurricane-proof dwellings during a Monday phone conference with U.N. officials. He also called for strengthening job and agricultural programs.

The U.N. says 520,000 people have received emergency shelter but even more still need help.

Humanitarian officials previously asked aid groups to stop ordering tents in favor of plastic tarps said to be better suited for the rainy season.

Looking for lessons in Haiti’s epic tragedy

The Associated Press
Sunday, February 28, 2010; 2:24 PM

— Tons of rice and beans tell how the world is helping Haiti. Missing tents, tarps and toilets show how it is falling short.

Amid the misery, experts already are looking for lessons from the Haiti catastrophe – in time, they hope, for the next nightmare. Some voices call for an international humanitarian force to take charge in future emergencies.

Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake has tested man’s humanity to man more than any natural calamity in modern memory, challenging the ability of the community of nations and its global emergency network to meet an unprecedented volume of demands for food, water, medical help and shelter.

Unlike Chile, struck by another great quake Saturday, Haiti was unprepared, its flimsy buildings and infrastructure were vulnerable, and much of its weak government was disabled.

“This is a major test for all of us and we cannot afford to fail,” U.N. humanitarian coordinator John Holmes told aid groups after his latest visit to the crippled Caribbean nation.

His private message Feb. 16 candidly acknowledged they were failing in one key area – working together. The U.N. undersecretary-general cited “steady improvement of coordination” in a subsequent Associated Press interview. But he added, “Does that mean we’ve got it all right? No, it doesn’t.”

Holmes has ordered an early “real-time evaluation” of what has gone right and wrong in Haiti. The U.N.’s Geneva-based independent inspectors, meanwhile, plan their own longer-range review.

What went wrong with coordination has ranged from the elementary – ill-advised handouts of infant formula – to the complex, beginning with complaints the U.S. military turned away too many relief flights in the first days of crisis.

Learning the lessons of Haiti is taking on added urgency because planners expect the world’s natural disasters to grow in scope and frequency, as expanding populations crowd vulnerable coastlines and quake and flood zones, and climate change threatens more extreme weather events.

The military is expected to play a greater role, as the U.S. and other governments recognize that helping hands in uniform can boost their image and security ties to stricken nations. Since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the U.S. military has deployed 40 times to natural disasters worldwide.

Along with airlift and other assets, however, the military brings along a culture of secrecy and resistance to outside authority that sometimes partners poorly with civilian aid groups.

Civilian-military coordination “has been one of the greatest challenges created by the increasing deployment of foreign military assets,” concluded military and other experts who studied disaster response for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Almost seven weeks after the quake killed an estimated 222,000 Haitians, injured a similar number and left more than 1 million homeless, the picture remains bleak.

The first rush of food aid was randomly targeted and poorly coordinated, although distribution improved as weeks went by. As of Feb. 20, a food “surge” had delivered two-week rice rations to almost all 3 million people in need, the U.N. said.

Distribution of clean water also took weeks to reach most in need. Many still have little access, raising concerns over reports, for example, that ill-informed aid groups were handing out infant formula, potentially mixable with unsafe water.

As human waste builds up, almost 1 million displaced people in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere need emergency latrines, the U.N. Children’s Fund says. And as Haiti’s seasonal rains approach, the U.N. says only 33 percent of 1.2 million newly homeless have received tents or tarpaulins to shelter their families. Shelter planning among U.N. and other aid organizations and the Haitian government has gone slowly.

The distressing scenes prompted calls for a stronger “first responder” system. Returning from Haiti, the European Union aid commissioner, Karel de Gucht, said the time seemed right to consider an all-Europe rapid reaction force for global disasters.

France had similarly proposed an “International Humanitarian Force” after the Asian tsunami, and the U.N. Joint Inspection Unit in 2006 recommended that international law endow Holmes’ U.N. agency, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with greater authority to direct a global response.

Those ideas got nowhere. “It’s just a lack of leadership,” Tadanori Inomata, the chief inspector in the 2006 review, said of the U.N.’s inaction.

He still sees an “urgent need” for OCHA to take fuller charge in such emergencies, and says his unit will next review the performance in Haiti.

Holmes told the AP it’s “probably not that realistic” to envision having a standing force and worldwide supply stockpiles for emergencies. As for added OCHA authority, the British ex-diplomat doubted “U.N. agencies, the Red Cross or others would accept that I have direct executive authority over them, and I won’t seek that.”

One experiment in U.N. coordination with world militaries has faltered: an OCHA database listing transport planes, rescue teams and other military assets potentially available for disaster response. The U.S. military, by far the most capable, never offered any listings.

“I think we’re moving away from the Central Register,” Alan Butterfield, of OCHA’s civil-military coordination section, said of the database.

The sometimes halting civil-military cooperation in Haiti, where the U.S. Southern Command deployed as many as 20,000 personnel to help the recovery, could be seen in a series of formal U.S.-U.N. agreements needed to clear away obstacles.

On Jan. 18, six days after the quake and after aid officials complained U.S. Air Force controllers at Port-au-Prince airport favored U.S. military flights over inbound relief supplies, the Pentagon reached an agreement with the U.N. giving priority to aid flights. Working out a “slot” system took days more.

On Jan. 22, the U.S. agreed to support priorities in Haiti identified by the U.N. – not unconditionally, but “as appropriate.” That three-page document also said further coordination steps were needed. Not until Jan. 26, two full weeks after the quake, did the U.S. and U.N. set up a joint center to arrange security for aid deliveries, a concern from the start.

Rather than rely on belated agreements, Inomata’s U.N. recommendations likely would establish such priorities and structures beforehand by international regulations and standards.

Despite its big role, the U.S. military doesn’t coordinate at high levels with the U.N. relief structure. After the quake, it took five days for Holmes’ OCHA to embed a liaison at the Southern Command’s Miami headquarters, in part because the Americans required someone with U.S. security clearance.

“It might have been good if they (OCHA’s civil-military coordinators) were brought into the picture earlier on,” disaster specialist Linda Poteat of Interaction, a coalition of U.S. aid groups, said in a telephone interview from Haiti. Like others, she expressed dismay at the early delays in humanitarian flights.

Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bob Mehal said the U.S. military takes disaster-response requests from the State Department, not the United Nations. U.N. authorities “do not contact the Defense Department directly,” he said.

An internal NATO study was more blunt. “US agencies did not coordinate with UN,” the 2008 report observed about the military’s response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed some 230,000 people in 11 countries. “They had the perception that the UN is useless.”

As a result, the NATO authors said, there was “duplication and overlap of aid in some regions, whereas other regions were neglected.”

On the U.N. side, the 2006 inspector’s report cited weaknesses in OCHA’s staffing, now numbering 1,965, saying its system of one-year contracts produces instability and a high turnover.

Holmes himself took to task OCHA’s own “clusters” in Haiti, the system devised after the tsunami that assigns to single agencies the task of coordinating aid from many groups – UNICEF for the water cluster, for example, and the Red Cross for emergency shelter.

He said some cluster leaders had failed to devote enough hands and heads to coordinating up to 200 organizations.

“A huge emergency like this has brought out the extent to which managing these clusters is a full-time job,” he told the AP.

Like nothing before, the enormity of the Haiti emergency swamped the world’s ability to help. Disaster specialists now will look into that swamp for clues to next time. But no one mistakes what the big problem was.

“What’s gone wrong in Haiti?” repeated Laurent Sury, an emergency operations deputy with Doctors Without Borders. “The earthquake, that’s what went wrong.”

Said Holmes, “There are limits to being 100 percent prepared.”