UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations Security Council took action Thursday to begin shutting down its 13-year-old peacekeeping mission in Haiti.
The current 5,000-strong mission will begin drawing down its troops and transition in mid-October to a smaller force of just over 1,200 police personnel. It will focus on the rule of law, building Haitian police capacities and monitoring human rights.
"As the stabilization mission in Haiti draws down and the new mission gears up, the Haitian people will be set on the path of independence and self-sufficiency," U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told council members.
The council said in its unanimously agreed resolution that the transition recognizes "the major milestone towards stabilization achieved" with the peaceful transfer of power in elections held in February.
"This new stage does not mean that it is the end of the commitment to Haiti," said France's deputy U.N. ambassador, Alexis Lamek. "It shows quite the contrary, that we can develop, change and adapt our activity to the situation on the field, while guided by the need to meet the aspirations of the people."
The U.N. stabilization mission, known as MINUSTAH, was deployed to Haiti in June 2004. It succeeded a Multinational Interim Force authorized by the Security Council in February 2004 after then-Haitian President Bertrand Aristide departed the country for exile following violence that spread to several cities across the nation.
By 2010, the country was regaining stability when it was rocked by a massive earthquake. More than 220,000 people were killed. Among the dead were 102 U.N. personnel, including the head of the MINUSTAH mission and his deputy.
In response to the needs following the earthquake, the Security Council added 3,500 more troops and police to support recovery, reconstruction and stability efforts.
In 2016, Haiti again faced another natural catastrophe when Hurricane Matthew devastated the southern part of the Caribbean nation and killed hundreds.
In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, the country suffered a cholera epidemic. U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were blamed for bringing the disease into the country. Haiti's Artibonite River was infected with cholera through human waste believed to be from the peacekeepers' camp. The river is the main water source for tens of thousands of Haitians.
Subsequently, more than 8,500 people died of the water-borne disease, which can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, and hundreds of thousands more were sickened.
Last year, the United Nations acknowledged it played a role in the epidemic and said it would set up a trust fund for victims. It has appealed to member states for $400 million to fight the disease and support those most directly affected by it. The trust fund, however, is severely underfunded, with only $2.6 million of the $400 million requested having been received.
Sexual abuse and exploitation
U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti have also come under criticism for the rape and exploitation of children and women they were sent to protect.
In 2012, three Pakistani peacekeepers were sent home after the rape of a Haitian boy at their base. Only one peacekeeper reportedly served a brief jail sentence in Pakistan.
This week, the Associated Press reported that at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers repeatedly sexually abused nine Haitian children as part of a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. None of the peacekeepers has been jailed for the alleged crimes.
Peacekeepers from Bangladesh, Brazil, Jordan, Nigeria and Uruguay have also faced allegations in Haiti.
The Haitian cases are part of a wider problem in U.N. peacekeeping of sexual exploitation and abuse that the organization has been trying to stem for years. Despite a "zero tolerance" policy and the repatriation of offenders, the inability to stop often poorly trained and ill-disciplined troops from abusing civilians has been a major stain on the U.N.'s credibility and reputation.
The United States, which pays nearly a third of the annual peacekeeping budget of almost $8 billion, has demanded that the abuses stop.
"These peacekeepers are sent into vulnerable communities to protect the innocent, not to exploit or rape them," Ambassador Haley told council members. "Countries that refuse to hold their soldiers accountable must recognize that this either stops, or their troops will go home and the financial compensation will end."