PORT-AU-PRINCE A U.N. Security Council delegation arrived in Haiti on Monday for a four-day visit to Haiti to assess security needs before a decision over reducing the 10,500-member peacekeeping force.
There has been mounting public unease over the U.N. role in Haiti after recent allegations of rape involving Pakistani soldiers, on top of anger over a deadly cholera epidemic in 2010 linked to the peacekeeping force, known as MINUSTAH.
The 15 council members will travel to the cities of Miragoane, Leogane and Cap-Haitien, as well as visiting parliament, earthquake resettlement camps and a police training academy. They are also expected to meet with President Michel Martelly.
Martelly has proposed replacing the peacekeeping force with a reconstituted Haitian army, which was disbanded in 1995 after a brutal period of military rule. U.N. peacekeepers were sent to Haiti in 2004 after an armed uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who fled into exile but has since returned.
The U.N. peacekeepers had played a crucial role in Haiti and will continue to do so for some time to come, said Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who is leading the Security Council delegation. Rice recognized the controversy surrounding the U.N. troops, though she did not address the proposal to create a new army, focusing instead on the need for better policing.
"While we are clear-eyed about some of the recent tensions and issues, the men and women of MINUSTAH will continue to play an important supporting role in strengthening the Haitian National Police and Haiti's other critical rule of law institutions," she said.
Many international experts argue that reviving the Haitian army would be a dangerous and costly move which the cash-strapped nation cannot afford.
The United Nations would be highly unlikely to agree to fund the new military, diplomats add, especially given the more urgent need to resettle victims of the 2010 earthquake that left hundreds of thousands of Haitians homeless.
"It's as necessary as a third head in a country that has so many priorities and needs, and so little in the way of resources," said Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group which monitors Haiti closely.
Instead, the United Nations is likely to propose a reconfiguration of its peacekeeping force later this year, diplomats say. They would reduce the number of foreign infantry battalions while keeping military engineering units to help with civil infrastructure projects and maintaining a strong international police presence.
Despite the worst poverty statistics in the hemisphere, Haiti's security situation is good compared with its neighbors and it enjoys one of the lowest murder rates in the region.
In January, the United Nations announced it was investigating two allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving minors in Haiti. The rape cases have triggered renewed protests and demands from Haitian senators that U.N. soldiers be stripped of immunity and be tried in a Haitian court.
The cases involved U.N. police officers in the capital Port-au-Prince and at least one member of a U.N. police unit in Gonaives, U.N. officials have said.
Last year, the U.N. force faced renewed public protests over allegations a group of Uruguayan troops raped a man. In December the United Nations said it was investigating allegations of assault and attempted homicide by Brazilian peacekeepers.
Some Haitians have called for the complete withdrawal of the U.N. force because of allegations that poor sanitary conditions at a camp of U.N. troops from Nepal was responsible for introducing the cholera epidemic to the country in 2010. More than 7,000 Haitians have since died of cholera.
The Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti has filed a lawsuit against the United Nations seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations for the cholera outbreak on behalf of victims and their families.
(Additional reporting by David Adams; Writing by David Adams; Editing by Doina Chiacu)