Canadian Peacekeepers in Somalia

In 1992–93, Canada contributed military forces to UNITAF, a United Nations–backed humanitarian mission in the African nation of Somalia. The mission was hampered by the fact that some of the warring factions in the Somalia conflict attacked the international forces that were trying to restore order and deliver food to a starving population. The Canadian effort was also clouded by the murder of a Somali teenager by Canadian troops. The crime — and alleged cover-up by Defence officials in Ottawa — became one of the most infamous scandals in Canadian history.

Somalia Affair

Canadian Airborne Regiment, Chaplain Capt. Mark Sargent stands behind a group of Somali youths captured by the Airborne Regiment, who are bound and wearing signs that read Thief

(courtesy Commission of Inquiry into ... Deployment of Troups... Somalia/Library and Archives Canada)

Somalia Civil War

Somalia is a strategically important country in the Horn of Africa, the security of which affects the safety of critical international shipping lanes in the area. In the early 1990s, Somalia’s government collapsed, and the country dissolved into civil war, with rival warlords competing for power. The conflict, combined with drought, brought famine to much of Somalia.

As security declined on the nearby sea lanes, United Nations (UN) and nongovernment organizations struggled to deliver food and humanitarian aid to the starving population. International pressure grew to bring order to the country and allow the safe distribution of food and medical supplies to millions of desperate people. In 1992, a small UN force struggled to support the distribution of aid as local militias preyed upon the troops and ambushed relief efforts.

UNITAF

In late 1992, ongoing anarchy and starvation in Somalia led to the creation of the UN-sanctioned United Task Force (UNITAF). This was a more robust military effort proposed and led by the United States, with contributions of troops and equipment from 23 other countries, including Canada. In traditional peacekeeping missions, UN-commanded soldiers intervene between warring sides to enforce a mutually agreed cease-fire. UNITAF was different, however, because it was not welcomed by all the warring factions in Somalia. It was also commanded by the US military, and its troops were mandated to use lethal force if necessary to bring order to Somalia and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.

In December 1992, the first UNITAF troops began arriving in Somalia. Canada provided a group of approximately 1,400 soldiers that was made up mostly of soldiers from the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment. This unit was deployed to the desert town of Belet Huen in south-central Somalia. A Canadian warship, HMCS Preserver, also took part in naval operations off the coast of Somalia, and Canadian ship-based helicopters carried out medical evacuations.

Success and Failure

The large and well-resourced military intervention had considerable success in protecting relief supplies and facilitating their safe delivery to large segments of Somalia’s starving population. In Belet Huen, for example, the Canadians rebuilt roads and bridges, destroyed land mines, reopened hospitals and guarded truck convoys carrying food and other aid.

However, UNITAF was unable to force an end to the civil war or win the cooperation of local warlords. Fighting and anarchy, particularly in the capital city of Mogadishu, made international efforts difficult and dangerous. The powerful militia led by warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid also attacked and killed UNITAF forces, provoking open conflict between them. The most serious incident occurred on 5 June 1993, when 25 Pakistani soldiers with UNITAF were killed and mutilated by Aidid’s fighters.

In the ensuing months, US forces, with the UN’s official support, tried to capture Aidid and coerce the surrender of his militia. In October in Mogadishu, two US helicopters were shot down by militia fighters and 18 US soldiers were killed – some of their corpses later subjected to acts of public outrage, recorded in television footage broadcast around the world. Hundreds of Somalis were also killed in the deadly street battle. The episode prompted a decision by the US to withdraw its forces from Somalia. Other contributing nations followed suit, and the mission — having lost more than 140 UNITAF troops and civilians overall from hostile acts — came to an end. Somalia and its people were left in the hands of the warlords.

Canadian Scandal

In March 1993 in Belet Huen, months before the killing of UNITAF troops in Mogadishu, Canadian Airborne soldiers shot and killed a Somali man trying to break into the Canadian encampment and steal supplies. A week later, on 16 March, the Canadians captured, tortured and killed Shidane Arone, a 16-year old Somali who had also broken into their base. These killings — and later alleged attempts to cover them up by senior Canadian officials at the Department of National Defence in Ottawa — triggered a national scandal that unfolded over the next five years (see Somalia Affair).

The scandal, investigated by a federal public inquiry, tarnished Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping nation, ended the careers of several high-ranking military officers, led to the court-martial of several Canadian troops and prompted the controversial disbandment of the entire Airborne Regiment by the government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Consequences and Significance

The UNITAF intervention in Somalia largely put an end to experiments in the robust use of military force by the international community in order to bring humanitarian aid to the victims of civil war. The conditions in Somalia were so challenging and deadly that Western nations such as the US lost their appetite for sending soldiers into harm’s way for foreign humanitarian purposes, particularly in Africa. The experience of Somalia meant that the UN and its leading member states were unwilling to intervene decisively in 1994 to stop the next crisis: the unfolding genocide in Rwanda.