Should Haiti’s peacekeepers go?

This has not been a good year for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. To the allegations that the cholera epidemic that killed up to 6,000 Haitians could be traced to the Nepalese troops, was added a recent video depicting Uruguayan soldiers molesting an 18-year-old boy

Several Haitian politicians have asked for the 12,000 troops to leave ASAP. In this context, the announcement by U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon of a MINUSTAH drawdown is welcome.

A first step would be the reduction to pre-earthquake levels, by some 2,000 military personnel. A time horizon for its departure, say, within five years, is needed. MINUSTAH has been in Haiti for seven years now.

Brazil, which has taken the lead in providing officers and troops, had recently announced it would start to cut back, and many of the other eight Latin American countries that have taken part in it (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay) would likely follow suit.

Yet, MINUSTAH achieved its objective. Since the fall of Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier in 1986, Haiti has undergone the rockiest democratic transition in the region. From 1986 to 1990, it had five different governments, as civilian and military rulers succeeded each other as if in a game of musical chairs.

Still, from 2006 to 2011, President René Préval completed his full five-year term in office, and became the first elected Haitian president to have done so and to have turned over the presidential sash to an elected successor, President Michel Martelly. This is because of, among other things, the joint endeavors of Haitians and the international community to stabilize the country.

MINUSTAH cannot close shop from one day to the next. Haiti has no armed forces (they were closed down in the ’90s to end the cycle of military coups; this was a good thing). The Haitian National Police (HNP), at 10,000 men and women, has only half the numbers needed in a country of 10 million. Any withdrawal has to be gradual, and be undertaken hand in hand with a suitable training of a sufficiently large and professionalized police force able to keep law and order in Haiti.

Haiti today has a window of opportunity. Martelly enjoys considerable good will at home and abroad. The newly appointed head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission, former Chilean Foreign Minister Mariano Fernández, has already proven his mettle at bringing government and opposition together.

The confirmation by the lower house of Parliament of Dr. Garry Conille as Haiti’s prime minister indicates a break in the deadlock between the executive and the legislature that had kept the government in limbo for four months. The Senate must still approve the nomination, but so far this is a step forward following the rejection of two previous nominees.

Haiti’s challenges are enormous. Only 20 percent of the debris from last year’s Jan. 12 earthquake has been removed. Some 600,000 Haitians are still in camps. Much of the money committed last year by the international community (up to $10 billion) for reconstruction and development, has not yet been obligated, let alone spent.

But Haiti has a number of key advantages — including a skilled labor force, proximity and privileged access to the biggest market in the world and a central position in the Caribbean Sea — that can be deployed to make the most of this opportunity.

According to the World Economic Forum, Haiti, though its GDP fell by 8.5 percent last year, has the potential to grow from 6 percent to 8 percent a year for the next decade. Exports now are already higher than before the earthquake.

MINUSTAH is the first U.N. peacekeeping mission formed by a majority of Latin American troops. Despite some hiccups, it has absolved itself honorably. It stabilized Haiti, which is what it was set up to do. The time has come for its drawdown.

The challenge now is to do it in an orderly and carefully planned fashion, in the course of years, not months.

Jorge Heine is CIGI Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario. His book Fixing Haiti: MINUSTAH and Beyond, was published last month by UN University Press.

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