UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to end the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti in mid-October after 13 years, sending a strong signal that the international community believes the impoverished Caribbean nation is stabilizing after successful elections.
The peacekeepers helped normalize a country in chaos after political upheaval in 2004 and a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people — including the head of the U.N. mission itself — as well as Hurricane Matthew, which caused widespread devastation in October.
But they also leave under a cloud. U.N. troops from Nepal are widely blamed for introducing cholera that has killed at least 9,500 people in Haiti since 2010. And some troops also have been implicated in sexual abuse, including of hungry young children, an issue reported on Wednesday by The Associated Press.
The resolution approved by the U.N.'s most powerful body extends the mandate of the mission, known as MINUSTAH, for a final six months during which the 2,370 military personnel will gradually leave.
It creates a follow-on peacekeeping mission for an initial period of six months comprising 1,275 police who will continue training the national police force. The new mission will also assist the government in strengthening judicial and legal institutions "and engage in human rights monitoring, reporting and analysis."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycrof said the resolution sends a signal that once peacekeepers aren't needed, U.N. missions should close or transform to focus on other challenges.
"We are at the end of an important phase in Haiti," he said. "What we now need is a newly configured mission which is focused on rule of law and human rights."
The United Nations has been involved in Haiti on and off since 1990. A 2004 rebellion had the country on the brink of collapse, leading to deployment of the U.N. force, and Haiti has been trying to get its shaky democracy on a firmer foundation ever since.
A political crisis and ensuing street protests stemming from a repeatedly derailed 2015 electoral cycle again threatened the stability of the country but an elected president and lawmakers are now in place.
The United States has launched a review of all 16 peacekeeping missions to assess costs and effectiveness, and U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Haiti is "a success story when it comes to drawing down a peacekeeping mission."
With the new mission, she said, "the Haitian people will be set on the path of independence and self-sufficiency."
But citing the AP story, Haley said after the vote that while the departure of the peacekeepers "is seen as a success, unfortunately it's a nightmare for many in Haiti who will never be able to forget and live with brutal scars."
At least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine Haitian children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007, according to an internal U.N. report . It was part of a larger AP investigation of U.N. missions during the past 12 years that found an estimated 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers and U.N. personnel around the world.
"These peacekeepers are sent into vulnerable communities to protect the innocent, not to exploit or rape them," Haley said. "Countries that refuse to hold their soldiers accountable must recognize that this either stops or their troops will go home and their financial compensation will end."
She said the United States and the international community are committed to Haiti's "democratic development, independence and economic growth" and will also continue to push for accountability of U.N. peacekeeping missions accused of sexual abuse.
The Security Council resolution recognized the recent elections as a "major milestone towards stabilization." But it also said international support is needed to strengthen, professionalize and reform the police, promote economic development and face the "significant humanitarian challenges" following Hurricane Matthew, which struck in October.
The new mission authorized Thursday by the council, to be known as MINUJUSTH, is also authorized "to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence."
The council's decision was met with conflicting emotions in Haiti, where many fear that dark days of instability will return after the foreign soldiers depart.
"The reason why we don't have a lot of trouble these days is because the U.N. people are still around. But once they take off, opportunities will open up for Haitians with guns to make things crazy again," said Gary Guerre, a 27-year-old bank clerk.
Some Haitians are anxious that the chronically dismal economy will get even worse.
"All I know is that having the U.N. people around helps Haiti's economy a little bit. They buy stuff and it makes the foreigners feel like there's order here," said Jivenson Arisme, a 24-year-old entrepreneur who set up a small roadside business selling kites and other items for the Easter holiday.
But many Haitian citizens have always seen the multinational peacekeepers as an occupying force and an affront to national sovereignty.
"They should have been out of here a long time ago. I don't see how they've been helping Haiti at all. I just see them drive by here like they are on a holiday," said Jean Wilnive, who sells live poultry from a perch near a bustling Port-au-Prince intersection.
Aditi Gorur, who researches peacekeeping issues as a director of the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, said that a 13-year year stabilization mission may seem like a long time, "but creating a stable peace with an inclusive government is a decades-long endeavor" in troubled countries.
"If missions don't stay long enough to secure the gains they make and ensure that the host government is truly ready to manage security, U.N. member states will pay a much bigger price in the long-term," she said in an email.
Associated Press writers David McFadden in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Paisley Dodds in London contributed to this report.