Haiti: restoring human dignity
Cedric Piralla, returning after a two-and-a-half-year assignment as head of delegation in Haiti, talks about the special role played by the ICRC in a country beset by chronic violence and poverty.
What are the ICRC's main humanitarian concerns in Haiti?
We have a great number of humanitarian concerns in Haiti, where the needs are enormous. There are also many priorities given that the population, weakened by decades of hardship, is now barely able to survive. The conditions are so disastrous, however, tha t we have to focus above all on meeting basic needs.
Nevertheless, I would say that the ICRC's overriding priority is to restore human dignity. When we repaired water taps in Cité Soleil (see our report, Haiti: Water is life ), the purpose was not just to supply people with clean water but also to protect them, especially women and children, by making sure that they no longer had to leave the shanty town to fetch water. This means that they are no longer exposed to the violence prevailing in the surrounding areas. Providing protection and security for people who have been deprived of these basic necessities helps to restore their dignity.
What is special about the ICRC's work in Haiti?
The ICRC is in touch with and talks to all those who are involved in or affected by violence in Haiti. Its long- term presence and its ability to listen to all sides has enabled the ICRC to put down roots and to gain respect and recognition as an organization that brings a humanitarian perspective to the situation. Faced with the complexity of Haiti's problems, the ICRC strives to act as a neutral intermediary between the different parties.
I think that the Haitian people, who are exposed to so many dangers, know that they can count on the ICRC because it operates in accordance with humanitarian principles, shows its concern for and its commitment to their welfare, and listens to them. Maintaining close ties with the population is essential to our work.
Can you give us an update on the ICRC's projects to improve conditions in Cité-Soleil?
Over the past three years, the ICRC has encouraged a return of State services to Cité Soleil. This is vital as the problems in the shanty town are so enormous that they cannot be resolved without the involvement of State institutions.
The ICRC has joined forces with some of these institutions, such CAMEP, an urban water board. By supporting and accompanying CAMEP staff, the ICRC helps to ensure that they can work without becoming the targets of violence. The repair of water taps symbolizes the return of public services to the shanty town, which is a crucial step.
In carrying out this project, the ICRC consulted all those concerned so as to ensure that, in the long run, the water-supply system could be handed over to local partners. This will happen once the running costs (fuel for pumping the water and repair work) are covered by the sale of water.
Another project carried out in Cité Soleil, together with the Haitian Red Cross, has made it possible to evacuate many injured people to adequate medical facilities and to set up local first-aid an d primary-health-care services.
Other run-down neighbourhoods require assistance as well. The ICRC is currently carrying out a project in Martissant, a southern district of Port-au-Prince, where residents often pay the price of violent clashes between armed gangs that control various neighbourhoods. It is extremely difficult to move about in Martissant, where there are only two main roads and where people have to cross " front lines " in order to reach a medical facility. The aim of the project is to facilitate the evacuation of wounded people by local Haitian Red Cross volunteers.
What kind of work does the ICRC do in Haiti's places of detention?
The ICRC's main priorities in Haiti's places of detention are to ensure that inmates have access to adequate medical care, that they receive enough clean water and that each place h as an efficient waste-disposal system.
In 2005 and 2006, the presence of beriberi – a recurrent problem in Haitian prisons – was once again noted among detainees. With the ICRC's assistance, prison authorities made radical changes to the inmates'diet and improved the management of food supplies.
Haiti's prison facilities are extremely inadequate and generally unable to meet the needs of the detainees. The ICRC has therefore striven to raise international awareness of the problem. An ambitious project, supported by friendly States such as Canada, France and the United States, is now under way to bring about strategic and coherent reforms in the prison system. The ICRC's role will is to identify major problems and analyze them from a humanitarian perspective.
What struck you most in your daily contacts with Haitians?
I was fortunate enough to carry out two assignments as head of the ICRC's delegation in Haiti, the first time in 1994. What struck me most in the course of my work was the extent to which Haitians welcome and respect the ICRC's work. This is partly because we have been present in the country throughout the most difficult periods of the past few years, and also because Haiti's unique history has given its people a keen awareness of the importance of humanitarian principles. I was also struck by the extraordinary imagination of the Haitian people.