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At the heart of the SitCen (file): the earthquake in Haiti, seen from the inside

(B2) The earthquake in Haiti was an intense period for the SitCen teams (the EU situation center), led by the British William Shapcott. Here is the story as I was able to reconstruct it: lived from within ”, according to testimonies collected from service agents.

« At 22 p.m., with the dispatches, we perceived that it was a disaster of major dimensions. The duty officer is alerted. He, in turn, alerts the cabinet of the High Representative. We also decided to strengthen the teams. The MIC (EU Civil Protection Crisis Centre) is also reacting. Contact is made with the Spaniards who hold the presidency and thus have responsibility for consular matters. A crisis meeting is organised, from the morning of Wednesday, bringing together all the actors of the EU (civilian, military, operational, political, etc.) and chaired by Catherine Ashton. » 

A textbook case

The situation on site is indeed “particularly difficult“. The country's capacity for political and relief coordination was damaged by the earthquake. The Spanish embassy is destroyed. The two heads of delegation are injured. They will be evacuated. A case rarely considered in crisis scenarios. It's simple : " We have lost all means of coordination on the spot. It took 36 hours to appreciate the magnitude of the difficulties. »

European experts deployed in the field

We then decided to send two people from SitCen to liaise with the Spanish Embassy and other representatives of the European Commission. With ECHO (the European Humanitarian Aid Office) and the MIC (European Civil Protection emergency unit), there were a total of around ten EU people on site. Objective: for everyone to have information in their area of ​​responsibility ". The distribution of tasks was well defined: political and consular at SitCen, civil security at MIC, humanitarian aid at ECHO ».

NB: This possibility of sending agents to the field, for the task of consular protection, is rather new. Created 2 years ago, it was used in Georgia in 2008, to strengthen the Special Representative's team and better manage the flow of information, in Thailand, in a mission similar to that of Haiti but with emphasis placed in support of the presidency.

Daily crisis meeting

A meeting will then be held every day. Every day, at 10 am, during the crisis period, a teleconference is organized with each crisis center of the Member States (*) – managed by one of the heads of unit of the SitCen. Each Member State has already sent resources on the spot as well as " on-the-ground information capture capabilities”. The purpose of the "EUCO" cell in Brussels is therefore " to ensure the cross-referencing and consistency of information coming from the field and that coming from the crisis centers».

The lesson of Haiti

« She still needs to be pulled. we estimate at the SitCen. In 2004, during the Tsunami, one of the problems encountered was the " compartmentalisation of information. We had good information at the technical level but compartmentalised. As a result, the political reaction had been slower. "However, the objective of a crisis unit is to be able to" inform politicians more quickly, to enable them to assess the measures to be taken ". In Haiti, this has functioned much better even though we were in a transitional phase of the Lisbon Treaty. We immediately functioned in the spirit of Lisbon, even though we didn't have the structures. But there are still many points to improve. For another of my interlocutors, we must also review the role of the SitCen, for the “to refocus on its original missions »: information, analysis, intelligence.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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