Their View: America needs to take charge in Haiti relief

Letters to the Editor

The world has responded with tremendous generosity to the destruction in Haiti after last week’s earthquake, but the breakdown of security and order there threatens to multiply the already terrible death toll if the food, water and medicine pouring into the country can’t be distributed properly. Relief officials now estimate that the death toll could rise as high as 200,000, with hundreds of thousands more left seriously injured or homeless.

With people desperate for food, water and shelter, looting has broken out in the country’s shattered capital, Port-au-Prince, and thousands of residents are trying to flee the destruction for outlying areas, some of which are in even worse shape. Reports from smaller towns such as Titanyen and Leogane suggest thousands of bodies have been dumped in mass graves over the past few days without any effort to identify them or perform last rites and that no aid of any sort has managed to reach many communities because of impassable roads and poor communications. Officials are now warning that conditions are so dire, the country could sink into anarchy or even civil war unless immediate steps are taken to stabilize the situation.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to send 3,500 more peacekeeping troops to Haiti, and the first waves of a planned force of 5,000 American soldiers and Marines have already arrived on the island nation and taken over key tasks, such as the running of the airport. Haiti’s own police and military forces disintegrated in the quake’s aftermath, so foreign troops are the only forces capable of maintaining a semblance of order there. But even with the arrival of the Marines and an expanded contingent of U.N. peacekeepers, the international boots on the ground are going to be stretched painfully thin.

To put things in context, Baltimore has about one police officer for every 200 residents, and that’s for a city that, for all its problems, is completely functional. To have the equivalent law enforcement presence in Haiti, you’d need nearly 50,000 troops.

Given the history of American occupation and meddling in Haiti’s affairs, the presence of American troops is a tricky business, but the U.S. needs to take charge both in the effort to restore order and in the effort to rebuild. Policing operations need to focus on stopping looters and preventing a resurgence of the criminal gangs that have terrorized the population in the past, but foreign security forces should avoid becoming entangled in disputes between property owners and the squatters who have erected tent cities on any available piece of land. In a city where half the quake’s survivors have been rendered homeless, every effort must be taken not to alienate the millions of people who have suddenly become refugees in their own country.

Meanwhile, reconstruction efforts should begin with rebuilding Haiti’s shattered infrastructure: hospitals, schools and government buildings and basic services such as water, electricity and telecommunications. This is a commitment that will take years, if not decades, to fulfill, but in undertaking it the U.S. is making a statement to the world of our dedication to humanitarian principles that, because of our size, resources, experience and proximity, we have a unique ability and responsibility to uphold.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton needs to continue to focus on working closely with the Haitian government to ensure that our efforts there are effective and remain welcome. For all the resentment American might has bred throughout the world, and in Haiti in particular, now is an opportunity to show how our power can be used for good.

The above editorial was originally published Jan. 21 by the Baltimore Sun. Content was made available by MCTCampus.