After lengthy mission, UN peacekeeper pullout looms in Haiti

In this Feb. 22, 2017 photo, children play in the street while U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil patrol in the Cite Soleil slum, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It took U.N. troops three years to gain control over the sprawling district of Cite Solel, but it's now placid even though its residents still live in desperate poverty. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

CITE SOLEIL, Haiti — A few dozen Brazilian troops wearing the blue helmets of the U.N. military force stroll through a dense warren of shacks in Haiti’s most notorious slum, facing no greater threat than a few barking dogs along some of the same streets where pitched gunbattles between gangs and peacekeepers used to be a daily occurrence.

Years of easygoing patrols like the one on this recent afternoon in the steamy seaside district of Cite Soleil is a clear sign to many both in Haiti and around the world that it’s time to wrap up a U.N. force that has been cycling through this Caribbean country since a 2004 rebellion engulfed Haiti in violence.

“We have a secure and stable environment,” Col. Luis Antonio Ferreira Marques Ramos, deputy commander of the Brazilian peacekeeper contingent, told The Associated Press. “The important thing is to leave in a good way.”

With a steady downsizing of Haiti peacekeeping operations in recent years and the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump pushing for cutbacks, the U.N. is looking at sending home 2,358 soldiers from 19 contributing countries, perhaps within months. U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said during a recent trip to Haiti that the military component “is likely to disappear in the relatively near future,” though officials have not spoken publicly about the roughly 2,200 foreign police who accompany them.

Washington, the Haiti mission’s main check-writer, is also applying pressure as it reviews all 16 U.N. peacekeeping missions. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the conversations were private, has told the AP that the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has spoken about winding up the Haiti peacekeeping operation, which is known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH.

“MINUSTAH in Haiti is a very good example of a mission that has basically done its job. So we’ll be very happy for that one to close down,” Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, said at a news conference at the world body’s headquarters in New York.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to decide on a reconfiguration of the $346 million-a-year U.N. mission in mid-April after reviewing Ladsous’ recommendations.

Still, sending troops packing does not mean the end of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

Operations such as UNICEF and the World Food Program also would remain. And analysts say officials are considering keeping the civilian staff in place along with a U.N. police component to continue building up and training the Haitian National Police.

“This would be unprecedented in U.N. peacekeeping history. Normally, police only serve in peacekeeping missions with military support and backup. But it’s a creative option to reduce the mission’s size and cost as MINUSTAH gradually works toward a full exit,” said Aditi Gorur, who researches peacekeeping issues as a director of the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank.

The U.N.’s first-ever “stabilization” mission came to Haiti in 2004 following a rebellion that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and had the chronically troubled country on the brink of collapse. There were daily deadly clashes among gangs loyal to Aristide’s faction, rebels and ex-soldiers, and rogue police. A wave of killings and kidnappings followed, aimed at destabilizing a U.S.-backed interim government.