UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell UN Security Council briefing on the humanitarian situation in Haiti
NEW YORK (October 23, 2023) – "Excellencies, colleagues,
Thank you to Ambassador França Danese for hosting this briefing during Brazil’s Security Council presidency, and for inviting me to update you on the dire humanitarian and child rights crisis in Haiti.
Today, I am speaking both as UNICEF Executive Director, and as the designated Principal Advocate on the Humanitarian Situation in Haiti for the Inter Agency Standing Committee.
The crisis in Haiti grows worse by the day.
Half the population needs humanitarian assistance, including nearly 3 million children. But half of those in need of assistance aren’t getting it – in large part because of insecurity and insufficient humanitarian funding. Basic services are on the verge of collapse. And in some communities, life is more dangerous now than it has ever been.
Years of political turmoil, and devastating economic conditions have led to the proliferation of armed groups. An estimated two million people, including 1.6 million women and children, live in areas under their effective control. And they are expanding their operations outside of the capital, perpetrating extreme levels of violence in both Port-au-Prince and neighboring Artibonite. When I visited Haiti last June, I saw firsthand how horrific violence and fear are tearing apart the very fabric that binds families and communities together.
Children are being injured or killed in the crossfire, some even on their way to school. Others are being forcibly recruited, or they are joining armed groups out of sheer desperation. Communities are being terrorized … and women and girls are being targeted with extreme levels of gender-based and sexual violence.
During my recent visit, I met an 11-year-old girl at the Gheskio Center, which provides care for survivors of sexual violence in the heart of Port-au-Prince. Late last year, five men from an armed group abducted her off the street while she was walking. Three of them took turns raping her. In June, when she shared her story with me, she was about eight months pregnant.
Several women at the center spoke of armed men breaking in, raping them – in one case, in front of her children – and then setting their homes on fire. In some areas, such horrific abuses and crimes are now commonplace.
Abductions for ransom have skyrocketed, while students, teachers, and health workers are subjected to threats daily. As a result, skilled workers – who are desperately needed to deliver essential services – are trying to flee their communities, and even the country entirely. Tens of thousands of people are now internally displaced because of the extreme violence.
Armed groups have also strangled major transport routes from Port-au-Prince to the rest of the country – where most of the population resides – destroying livelihoods and restricting access to essential services.
This life-threatening mix of conditions has caused an intensifying food security and nutrition crisis – especially for children. Since last year, we have seen an unprecedented 30 percent increase in the number of children suffering from severe wasting to more than 115,000 nationally.
Nearly a quarter of Haiti’s children are chronically malnourished, which can have devastating consequences for their physical and cognitive development.
The malnutrition crisis coincides with an ongoing cholera outbreak – in which nearly half of the more than suspected cases are children under 14. And severely malnourished children are five times more likely to die from cholera without urgent treatment. Yet the national health system does not have the capacity to adequately respond to the health and nutrition needs of vulnerable children and families.
The violence is also compromising the work of humanitarian actors on the ground. Yet despite the risk and operational complexity, our organizations are still reaching the most vulnerable children and families with lifesaving services.
And there are some positive outcomes.
Last week, for example, UNICEF and our partners were able to secure the safe release of nearly 60 children being held by armed groups occupying a school in Port-au-Prince.
Excellencies, we are delivering for the people of Haiti, and we are committed to staying on the ground to meet humanitarian needs. But we need more support. So far this year, we have received barely a quarter of the $720 million needed to fund the Humanitarian Response Plan.
The international community should prioritize increasing flexible humanitarian funding. This will help us to provide lifesaving aid, while also implementing solutions for longer-term development and resilience building. I hope all of us here today will urge International Financial Institutions and development partners to keep Haitian social sectors and services in operation – at least until their capacity is rebuilt.
Of course, progress in Haiti is contingent upon significant improvements to the security situation. The Multi-National Security Support Mission to Haiti, recently approved by this Council, will play a critical role in this effort. The safety of civilians is paramount, and the Support Mission must prioritize their protection in all of its operations.
This includes avoiding the use of force in and around populated areas. And the Mission must only use the least harmful means that are necessary and proportionate to legitimate law enforcement objectives.
The Support Mission must also ensure that special care and attention are given to the protection of vulnerable groups – including children, women, people living with disabilities, and those who are internally displaced. The Mission must work with the Government to identify threats to these groups of people, and to ensure they are protected from abuses and other human rights violations … including sexual and gender-based violence, and grave violations against children.
Preventing sexual exploitation and abuse will require thorough pre-deployment and on-the-ground training. Police Contributing Countries must take all necessary steps to conduct investigations of allegations as expeditiously as possible, and to hold perpetrators of SEA accountable.
In addition, the Mission must ensure that children who are, or allegedly are, associated with armed groups are regarded as victims of violations of international law. This includes those who are accused of committing crimes.
Lastly, the Support Mission must strive to facilitate humanitarian action, while remaining apart from humanitarian operations. They must avoid impeding access to reach people in need according to humanitarian principles. Adequate coordination with humanitarian actors through civilian-military platforms will be fundamental.
Excellencies, I continue to be struck by the resilience, dignity and courage of the people of Haiti, despite the dire situation on the ground. They remain dedicated to the vision of a peaceful and prosperous country. Working together with them, I am confident that we can help turn this vision into reality.
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