PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — A U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti that has helped maintain order through 13 years of political turmoil and catastrophe is coming to an end as the last of the blue-helmeted soldiers from around the world leave despite concerns that the police and justice system are still not adequate to ensure security in the country.
The U.N. lowered its flag at its headquarters in Port-au-Prince during a ceremony Thursday that was attended by President Jovenel Moise, who thanked the organization for helping to provide stability. After a gradual winding down, there are now about 100 international soldiers in the country and they will leave within days. The mission will officially end on Oct. 15.
Immediately afterward, the U.N. will start a new mission made up of about 1,300 international civilian police officers, along with 350 civilians who will help the country reform a deeply troubled justice system. Various agencies and programs of the international body, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization, will also still be working in the country.
"It will be a much smaller peacekeeping mission," said Sandra Honore, a diplomat from Trinidad and Tobago who has served since July 2013 as the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti known as MINUSTAH, its French acronym. "The United Nations is not leaving."
MINUSTAH began operations in Haiti in 2004, when a violent rebellion swept the country and forced then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of power and into exile. Its goals included restoring security and rebuilding the shattered political institutions. In April, the Security Council deemed the country sufficiently stable and voted to wind down the international military presence, which then consisted of about 4,700 troops.
Many Haitians have viewed the multinational peacekeepers as an affront to national sovereignty. U.N. troops are believed to have inadvertently introduced the deadly cholera bacteria to the country and have also been accused of causing civilian casualties in fierce battles with gangs in Port-au-Prince and of sexually abusing minors.
But the mission, with additional help from the U.S. and other nations, is also credited with stabilizing the country, particularly after the January 2010 earthquake, and building up the national police force.
"The job may not be complete but they have essentially done much of what they were originally designed to do in terms of preventing any kind of armed takeover of the state, in terms of increasing the safety of civilians," said Mark Schneider, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It takes work to maintain that and Haiti needs to maintain that."
MINUSTAH, Schneider said, has been key in helping Haiti develop a credible civilian national police from "almost zero" to its current level of about 15,000 officers, which most experts believe is still too small for a country of nearly 11 million. The police force was intended to replace the army, which was disbanded by Aristide in 1995 because of its repeated role in a series of coups and that the Haitian government is now seeking to reconstitute over international objections.
"Haiti needs an atmosphere of peace so we can take responsibility for ourselves," said Haitian Sen. Jacques Suaveur Jean. "We don't need foreign soldiers."
The new U.N. mission will consist of seven police units that can respond to major incidents, in addition to officers deployed throughout the country to advise and assist their Haitian counterparts. Civilians will also be working with the government to improve the country's justice system, which the State Department said in this year's annual human rights report has serious flaws, including severe prison overcrowding, prolonged pretrial detention and an inefficient judiciary.
Honore, in an interview ahead of Thursday's ceremony, cited the training and hiring of police officers as one of the U.N. successes.
MINUSTAH had already been scaling back before the Security Council voted to end the mission. In the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed 96 U.N. personnel, including former head of mission Hedi Annabi, the number of troops reached more than 10,000. But when Honore arrived there were about 6,200 soldiers from around 20 countries, a figure that dropped again by nearly a third within two years.
The cholera outbreak, which started in October 2010 after peacekeepers from Nepal contaminated the country's largest river with waste from their base, killed an estimated 9,500 people and irrevocably damaged the reputation of the organization in Haiti. Many critics felt the U.N. did not adequately respond to the outbreak, something the organization sought to later remedy.
"It was a fundamental error because it undermined the image not just of MINUSTAH, but of the international community," Schneider said.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.