The Limits of Government-Provided Security: Another Lesson from Haiti

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November 20, 2010

Categories: In Action,

Civil unrest is again on the rise in Haiti, this time in Cap Haitien, where violence and threats to foreigners has prompted one of our media clients to request assistance for two reporters stuck in the midst of the rioting. Sixteen people have been reported wounded, two dead, and the local airport was closed to commercial traffic. Meanwhile, the death toll from the cholera outbreak in the region has topped the 1,000 mark.

Again, it will be the private sector that helps to provide a solution to this recurring problem. In a country where public safety infrastructure is now practically nonexistent, U.S. Embassy resources are stretched too thin to handle the volume of security emergencies facing Americans.

Coincidentally, I was at a conference this week at the U.S. State Department, where the Regional Security Officer for Haiti, Steve Lesniak, outlined the challenges he faced after the earthquake in Port-au-Prince in January. A chaotic crowd of Haitians arrived at the embassy in search of help of every description: urgent medical aid, food and water, shelter from machete-wielding mobs. The compound was so overrun at one point that even the Ambassador could not get inside.  Arriving medevac flights, Lesniak recalled, were waved off at the Embassy’s adjoining helicopter pad because the field was packed with livestock and refugees.

American citizens were turned away at the gates.

In her opening remarks at this conference, the 25th annual briefing of the Overseas Security Advisory Council, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put the crisis in a global perspective:  There are so many tourists and businessmen engaged in activities in the furthest reaches of the planet that the U.S. Government will need to turn to the private sector to fill in the widening gap between the needs of American citizens abroad and the limited resources of diplomatic missions.

“It’s been 25 years since an innovative Secretary of State and a handful of innovative leaders from the private sector first met,” Clinton said. “Secretary George Shultz wanted to chart a new partnership on security for Americans overseas. Twenty-five years ago, even Secretary Shultz, who is such a visionary, might not have foreseen everything we deal with today. It’s a much more difficult security environment. The threat matrix is much more complex. The world has changed at a dizzying pace. American companies are everywhere. American students and tourists are everywhere. So we are living, working, learning in new ways like never before…

“So to stay active and engaged,” she told the crowd of a few hundred security professionals, “we need to work with you… This is a model public-private partnership which I’m very committed to doing more of. And in fact, any other ideas any of you have about how we can expand on our partnership models, I hope you will let us know.”

It was unclear just what shape new public-private partnerships would take in the future, but what was vividly clear was that the State Department recognizes that it can’t be counted on for the safety of every American abroad when the next earthquake, tsunami, ethnic riot or terrorist attack unfolds.

I remember answering questions for a CNN International interview after the earthquake in Haiti, when the query from anchorwoman Becky Anderson summed up the situation better than any answer.

“I would imagine, given what we’re hearing and seeing in a lot of cases,” she said “ a group of people or an organization that needs to move people around or get people out, they can’t just go to the police or the military here. I would imagine private security in many cases is really the only option.”

There is no police, military or embassy solution to the problems our clients are facing right now in Cap Haitien. If there was, they likely would not have turned to their employer to plead for assistance. And if their employers were confident that traveling representatives of the company would be kept out of harm’s way by the local embassy or police, they would not have become Global Rescue clients.

Over the weekend, one of our security teams, led by a former Navy SEAL, extracted the reporters from the violence. The team met the evacuees at a predetermined location and escorted them to Santo Domingo aboard a private flight, keeping their employer informed of their whereabouts and condition at every stage. They were then transported to the airport of their choice – in this case, in Virgina

In this time of holiday travel, Homeland Security has taken extraordinary measures to protect Americans against another attack on our soil. It is encouraging to know that the State Department is making progress in closing the security gap facing Americans abroad. I look forward to working with its staff to propose solutions that only the private sector can provide.


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