UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended a 15 percent reduction in the number of U.N. troops in Haiti on Tuesday and an examination of whether the beleaguered peacekeeping operation remains the best way to support to the impoverished Caribbean nation.
The force has been under intense scrutiny for years and is widely blamed for a massive cholera outbreak likely introduced by a U.N. peacekeeping battalion from Nepal. Protesters who oppose the mission have held running battles with authorities in the streets of Haiti and the country's Senate has called for its removal.
Ban, in a report to the Security Council, said he intends to hold talks with the government of Haiti and other nations "to explore the best way for the United Nations to continue contributing towards greater stability and development in the country."
He said he will discuss the option of replacing the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSTAH, "with a smaller, more focused assistance mission by 2016" and include proposals on the way forward in his next report to the council in March 2014.
In the meantime, he recommended reducing MINUSTAH's military strength from 6,270 to 5,021 by June 2014.
The U.N. mission also has 2,601 international police, including 50 corrections officers, who are helping to train the Haitian police force and bring its strength to a minimum of 15,000 by 2016.
"While challenges remain, the progress made in the stabilization of Haiti since MINUSTAH's initial deployment in 2004 is considerable," Ban said.
But the secretary-general said MINUSTAH's continued presence in Haiti has been increasingly called into question by political bodies and civil society groups.
On May 28, the Haitian Senate unanimously adopted a non-binding resolution calling for the progressive and orderly withdrawal of MINUSTAH by May 2014.
Last year, protesters calling for the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers clashed with police outside the earthquake-damaged Haitian National Palace in Port-au-Prince. They said they were angry over the cholera epidemic and the alleged sexual assault of an 18-year-old Haitian man by U.N. peacekeepers from Uruguay.
Ban said both President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe have "expressed support for a phased withdrawal of the mission as the capacity of national institutions increased."
According to the Ministry of Public Health and Population, as of June 29 the cholera epidemic had caused the death of 8,173 people and infected 664,282, with 258 deaths and 28,800 infections in the first six months of 2013, Ban said.
The secretary-general urged international donors to ensure the funds and expertise required to eradicate cholera in Haiti, which he called "a challenging task requiring a long-term commitment."
Earlier this month, researchers from Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health said there is ample scientific evidence to show U.N. troops from Nepal inadvertently brought cholera to Haiti in October 2010. They said the U.N. should take responsibility.
But the secretary-general maintains the U.N. enjoys legal immunity from such claims, and he rejected efforts by a Boston-based human rights group to seek compensation for a group of cholera victims who blamed peacekeepers for the outbreak.
On the political front, Ban said the steps taken by the Martelly administration "to project a new image of Haiti abroad in a bid to attract foreign investments ... have resulted in a significant increase in economic partnerships and have also generated renewed hope in Haiti's ability to achieve development and growth."
Nevertheless, he said, "the democratic process in Haiti remains vulnerable to setbacks linked to political instability and infighting between the branches of government."
Ban expressed deep concern at the continuing delay in holding partial senatorial, municipal and local elections, in part resulting from differences between the executive branch and parliament.