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The UN should relocate to Haiti

Haiti and the world would benefit from UN headquarter's relocation to Port-au-Prince
Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
15 January 2010

The long neglected nation of Haiti is finally the focus of the world’s attention, even if a 7.0 magnitude earthquake is in tight competition with ten centimetres of snowfall for UK headlines. I’ve just heard a prominent Republican advocating turning Haiti into a UN protectorate on a BBC World Service Newshour special on the country’s humanitarian needs. The idea of establishing Haiti as a UN protectorate has been circulating for some time, but the notion of revoking the hard-fought independence of the first truly postcolonial country is naturally tainted.

The fear is that otherwise crisis led pledges will last only as long as the attention of the news media. But for all the gestures of support donned by the international community, one genuine remedy is yet to be prescribed; the relocation of United Nations’ headquarters from uptown New York to the ruins of Port-au-Prince. Such a move would, without impinging Haitian sovereignty jealously guarded since independence, signal the necessary commitment and investment to rebuilding that which was destroyed and much more, while bringing beneficial byproducts to the wider global community.

The two cities are clearly worlds apart, regardless of suburban American intellectual’s virulent paranoia of the third world creeping into America’s urban centres. UNHQ would bring massive economic stimulus to one of the world’s most deprived cities. It has in total 15,000 employees, while 2,230 diplomats are on permanent assignment in New York. In 2007, renovation plans were announced for the New York compound at a cost of $1billion. By comparison, the UK has so far pledged just £6million to help rebuild Haiti.  In a country with a GDP, before the earthquake struck, of $6.9billion, the influx of such sums would be of huge consequence.

The UN’s present location, an internationalised strip of the largest, richest city in the richest and most powerful country in the world is far from hallowed, and has often been criticised. Britain, France and the Netherlands voted against its location in the US before the secretariat had any permanent abode. More recently, the UN itself put forward plans to relocate to Singapore, while Canada and Dubai have both offered to host the UN during its renovation.

Haiti seems far more suitable a location. It is not the centre of a discredited financial system, nor a contender to the country most responsible for the failure to reach a significant agreement in Copenhagen. It is a country that bore many of the movements of which humanity is most proud; its 1801 constitution enshrined racial equality, democratic government, legal equality, individual liberty and self determination, no matter how each was forsaken in the last two hundred years.

It would also ensure the world, represented by the 2,000 plus diplomats passing through the streets, never forgot the challenge of poverty, crime and disease or the legacy of slavery, colonialism and misrule. It would send a signal to the global south that the UN was the forum for truly global cooperation and the representative of the entire world’s people. It might help ease the North-South deadlock that has paralysed, among other important reforms, the long advocated expansion of the Security Council.

Objectors, who will no doubt include staff attached to the restaurants and bars of midtown, are likely to cite the insecurity of a now more dangerous and instable capital. Yet the commitment to locating UNHQ, and with it the inevitable presence of the world’s most important individuals, in Port-au-Prince will make the city, like the banking institutions rescued in the financial crisis, ‘too big to fail’. The cost of security will be high, but for every private security guard accompanying each diplomatic vehicle, some portion of their work will be siphoned into a well of public good, enjoyed by ordinary Haitians as well as diplomats, their aides and families. Securing a country as wretched as Haiti will leave a rejuvenated UN an incontestable legacy of success in at least one corner of the world.

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