Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Should Canada return to peacekeeping? Remembering the Somalia affair

Back in May during the belated House of Commons debate on Afghanistan, Jack Layton took the position that Canada's role in Afghanistan today should build on our strengths and reputation as a peacekeeping nation. This morning, World Report takes a critical look at one of the darker moments in Canadian peacekeeping.

Peacekeeping. The word alone seems to have taken on an unshakable positive connotation which everyone seems to want a piece of. It reminds us of Lester B Pearson, the father of peacekeeping, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his role in defusing the Suez Crisis.

It evokes images of the Cold War era when peacekeeping resolved conflicts between states by deploying unarmed or lightly armed soldiers from a number of countries, under UN command. Normally, a ceasefire was already in place. The parties to the conflict had to give their consent to the introduction of peacekeepers. Consent meant that peacekeepers neither needed nor were permitted to use force for anything but self-defense. And the peacekeeping forces were expected to maintain a strict neutrality toward all local parties and combatants.

The blue helmets themselves monitored cease-fires; patrolled demilitarized zones; blocked the flow of weapons; assisted with demilitarization and disarmament; protected UN civilian personnel, aid workers, and local non-combatants; and facilitated the post-conflict reconstruction of everything from roads to governing institutions. (Neack Bloody peacekeeping BAS Jul/Aug 04).

So successful were they that UN peacekeeping forces themselves were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988. According to the press release from the Nobel organization:

"The Peacekeeping Forces of the United Nations have, under extremely difficult conditions, contributed to reducing tensions where an armistice has been negotiated but a peace treaty has yet to be established. In situations of this kind, the UN forces represent the manifest will of the community of nations to achieve peace through negotiations, and the forces have, by their presence, made a decisive contribution towards the initiation of actual peace negotiations."

Such was force of these considerations that others were inspired to imitate--or at least to appropriate the language of--peacekeeping. In 1979, when the peace treaty was signed between Egypt and Israel, the UN decided to withdraw its peacekeepers from the Sinai peninsula. However, the terms of the treaty required the presence of international peacekeepers. So when the UN could not be persuaded to stay, Egypt, Israel and the United States negotiated an organisation outside the UN. The result is an 11-nation peacekeeping force known as the Multinational Force and Observers.

Again, in 1987 an Indian peacekeeping force, or IPKF, entered Sri Lanka to keep the peace between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces. The IPKF was drawn into conflict late that year. Supported by Indian Army tanks, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery, the IPKF temporarily routed the Tigers. The IPKF was not a classic peacekeeping operation on the UN model. Its troops were not lightly armed, and it did not maintain neutrality toward the combatants.

Today even NATO asserts that it is "playing an increasingly important role in...peacekeeping." When NATO speaks of peacekeeping the word may refer to operations that require airborne forces, mechanized infantry, attack helicopters, and artillery.

Although the majority of UN peacekeeping operations are successful, the concept of what peacekeeping actually is has changed under the pressure of several spectacular failures.

In Canada, the first of these is a festering piece of unfinished business known as the Somalia Affair. It began in 1992 with a phone call from George HW Bush inviting his friend Brian Mulroney to join the US-led relief mission to Somalia. Canadian Forces were overextended at the time. Moreover, the military brass had been warned that the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment was poorly trained, undisciplined and ill-equipped for the job. But two top Defence officials, Chief of Staff Gen. John de Chastelain and deputy minister of defence Robert Fowler, wanted a prominent role in a high-profile mission that would remove the memory of Canada’s relatively minor participation in the Gulf War. Mulroney jumped at the chance.

There was no ceasefire. Neither had parties to the civil war consented to a UN operation. Once in the field, the Canadian paratroopers' enthusiasm for helping the Somalis faded.

"The Canadians were harassed and threatened as they tried to rebuild bridges, roads and hospitals destroyed in the warfare. Once, they were pelted with stones while escorting a food convoy. Even more galling was the incessant stream of desperate Somalis sneaking into the Canadian compound at night to steal food and anything else they could scavenge. Nerves grew strained" (Macleans/Canadian Encyclopedia).

Then on March 4, 1993, a plot was hatched. "Using food and water as bait, a team of Canadian soldiers, including a sniper, lay waiting in the dark. Two Somalis crawled through a fence and grabbed the food. The soldiers ordered them to halt. When the Somalis turned and ran, the Canadians, equipped with night vision goggles, shot both of them in the back." One died.

Just a little over two weeks later, on March 19, "Jim Day, then a reporter for the small daily newspaper the Pembroke Observer, happened to be on assignment in [Somalia] and saw medical staff rushing [Cpl Clayton] Matchee by stretcher to hospital. Day recalled "When I asked,...they were very abrupt and defensive." No wonder. Only 2 1/2 days before, the bloody, mutilated body of Somali teenager [Shidane] Arone, who had been shot about a week and a half before, arrived at the same hospital. Arone had been in the custody of Matchee and other Airborne paratroopers. According to [later] court martial testimony, the corporal went berserk - savagely punching and kicking Arone, and using cigarillos to burn the teenager even as the Somali pleaded "Canada, Canada, Canada," in a futile bid to halt the three-hour-long torture. Under custody in a temporary detention bunker, Matchee tried to hang himself with a bootlace, but a guard discovered him before he finished the job.

Kim Campbell, who was Minister of Defence at the time, was caught off guard. She said that while she learned about the death two days after it happened, it took anothertwo weeks before she heard it might have been murder. The Liberal opposition claimed she had known the details of the case from the beginning.

The scandal broke while Campbell was preparing her successful bid for the Progressive Conservative leadership, dogged her throughout the disastrous 1993 election campaign. The PCs won only two seats. In retrospect, they were effectively finished as a party.

Peacekeeping in Somalia was not just a Canadian disaster. On 3 October 1993, the peace enforcement and nation building mission of UNOSOM II suddenly turned violent when a US offensive operation, code named Task Force Ranger, came under heavy fire from Somali gunmen. Locals saw the US and UN supporting one clan, Ali Mahdi, over that of the rival one led by Aidid. This was further compounded by the July 12th missile attack by the US on a meeting involving members of Aidid's clan who were arguing for negotiation. Not only was there no cease fire and no consent from the warring parties, there was no neutrality and no sense whatever in which the peacekeepers fired only in self-defense. All four characteristics of classic UN peacekeeping were absent.

The attack on Task Force Ranger ultimately led to one of the worst military defeats of a US military force since the Vietnam war.

Back in Canada, the Liberals, once elected, moved to put the scandal behind them. It heated up again in January 1995. A videotape showing soldiers from the Airborne Regiment being forced to eat urine-soaked bread as part of an initiation ritual led the government to disband the Regiment.

Then in the spring of 95, Major Barry Armstrong, a doctor who had served in Somalia, alleged that the Somali killed on March 4 had been executed. He had been shot in the back of the head at point-blank range.

Defence Minister David Collenette was forced to call an Inquiry. Under Gilles Letourneau, a Federal Court of Canada judge, the Somalia Commission ran from October 1995 until Chretien's Liberals abruptly shut it down in January 1997.

Still, there was a final report. The three member commission concluded that "the sorry sequence of events in Somalia was not the work of a few bad apples...but the inevitable result of systematic organization and leadership failures, many occurring over long periods of time and ignored by our military leaderst for just as long." They said that the nations military system was "rotten to the core" and that sweeping change was the only way "to recaputure lost faith in the Canadian Forces and to restore honor to our traditional role as international peacekeepers."

Before long, the Canadian public wearied of the Somalia affair. It had outlasted four defence ministers, liberal and conservative. Each new revelation had been worse than the last. A period of denial regarding Canada's military was well under way.

Now Jack Layton seems to have forgotten that there was ever any question about "our traditional role as international peacekeepers," and this week Stephen Harper is set to announce $15 billion in new military spending.

In those days, at first, Rwanda was gathering on the horizon. Then in 1994 it rose up like a vast and sudden tidal wave and swept away the memory of one teenager's death in Somalia. What followed, especially for those who view peacekeeping as a treasured national institution, was one cautionary tale after another.

Those who want to make Canada a proud peacekeeper again have their work cut out for them.
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