Somalia Affair

Somalia Affair

The Somalia Affair was a Canadian military scandal in the mid-1990s. It began with the brutal 1993 beating death of a Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, at the hands of two Canadian soldiers participating in the United Nations humanitarian efforts in Somalia. The crime, documented by grisly photos, shocked the Canadian public and brought to light internal problems in the Canadian Airborne Regiment that went beyond the two soldiers directly involved. Questions were asked about why the unit was chosen for that mission despite disciplinary problems. Perhaps most damaging to the leadership of the Canadian military was how it reacted after the events became public, as accusations of covering up the event surfaced.

Eventually a public inquiry was called. Despite being controversially cut short by the government, the Somalia Inquiry found deep problems in the leadership of the Canadian Forces. The affair led to the disbanding of Canada's elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, greatly damaged the morale of the Canadian Forces, and damaged both the domestic and international reputation of Canadian soldiers.


Canadian forces were sent to Somalia to participate in Operation Deliverance, part of the American-initiated Operation Restore Hope supported by the United Nations. In March, 1993, the operation was to come under UN command and was renamed UNOSOM II. Its goal was to deliver humanitarian aid and restore order to the African nation of Somalia which was suffering from a severe famine, general anarchy, and domination by warlords following the collapse of Siad Barre's Marxist government.

In 1992, Somalia was in chaos. Its people had suffered a long famine and vicious civil war. Intermittent civil war had been a fact of life since 1977 and the country was lawless and without government. Government had dissolved into rival factions of tribally oriented warlords. Relief workers attempting to deliver food and medical supplies were in constant danger of attack by armed gangs, who would hold the goods hostage for the loyalty of the people. The aid was stolen by the warlords and bartered for weapons, the famine becoming more severe as a result. As a result, the UN requested armed peacekeepers to assist the relief operations. The mission of Operation Deliverance was to provide a secure enough environment to ensure that aid reached the people of Somalia.

Deployment to Somalia

Canada, with a long history of participation in international peace and security missions, was one of several nations that agreed to send forces. Canadian forces at that time were stretched, however, with a number of other deployments, most notably in the former Yugoslavia. The Canadian military leadership, under the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, selected the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR), as Canada's contribution to this peace-restoration operation. The Airborne had long been seen as the elite of the Canadian Forces, and in 1974 had performed admirably in combat operations in Cyprus as well as later peacekeeping tours there.

Canadian Airborne Regiment

There were serious concerns among Canadian leadership with regards to sending the Airborne, as the mission was seen as being outside its raison d'etre. Controlling a large area of a country required a mobile force, while the CAR was essentially a light infantry battalion, and only recently reorganized as such. There had also been recurring discipline problems and reports that some members of the unit were white supremacists, who were concentrated in 2 Commando (each company sized subunit was designated a Commando); one of the symptoms being the adoption of the Confederate States of America flag as the commando's barracks-room decoration.ref|flag The Airborne consisted of distinct sub-units provided by each of Canada's regular infantry regiments; later, commander Lieutenant Colonel Kenward suggested that the line regiments had offloaded some of their "bad apples" into the CAR. The commanding officer of the CAR, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Morneault, declared this "rogue commando" unit unfit for service abroad and sought to leave it behind in Canada when he deployed. Instead, he was relieved of his command and replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Carol Mathieu, an officer renowned for his rough-and-ready toughness.

The CAR was accompanied by a helicopter squadron and a squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons. These forces were deployed to Somalia in January 1993, setting up its tented patrol-base outside the town of Belet Huen. Their mission was to secure and bring order to the town and a 30,000 square kilometer area around it. The soldiers lived on hard rations, with limited water, but patrolled actively while also establishing effective relations with the local tribal leaders. The Canadian Airborne Regiment stood out as having rapidly brought a modicum of order to its assigned territory. However, much of the aid was still being siphoned by local warlords, and there was also a constant stream of locals pilfering from the Canadian camp itself.ref|pilfering This theft from the camp was a major irritant, and also a risk to the safety of the soldiers. At least one commanding officer had tacitly encouraged abuse of any thieves who were caught.ref|abuse

Death of Shidane Arone

On March 16, 1993 the Airborne captured a Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, who had sneaked into the camp. He was placed in an empty bunker, that had often been used as a cell, under the guard of Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Trooper (Private) Kyle Brown. Matchee, who had been drinking heavily, almost immediately began severely beating Arone, punching him in the ribs, hitting him in the head with his baton, and putting out cigarettes on his foot. Brown participated somewhat in this abuse, but was mostly an observer. He took sixteen photos of the beating, when these trophy like pictures became public they would create a considerable furor. During the several hours the beating went on several other soldiers visited the bunker and observed the events; many others were within earshot of the bunker and could hear what was going on.

Matchee and Brown left the unconscious Arone after several hours of this torture. When an officer returning from patrol checked on Arone he found that he had no pulse, and base medics confirmed that the boy was dead. A death in custody automatically triggers an investigation, and two days later Matchee and Brown were arrested and charged with the murder and National Defence Headquarters was advised. Master Corporal Matchee later attempted suicide; the attempt failed but caused massive brain damage, making him unfit to stand trial. Brown was found guilty of manslaughter.

Brown claimed in his defence that he informed every officer he could find of the happenings in the bunker, and requested that they intervene. Brown stated that when the officers declined to stop the torture, he began documenting the event with photographs. Brown later published a book in which he presented a case wherein he had been made the scapegoat for the incident and the officers who had not intervened were not brought to justice.

Charges subsequently laid against members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment suggested that sixteen people had passed through the area where Arone was tortured and that, during the night, his screams could be heard throughout the surrounding area. The commander of 2 Commando and a number of his subordinate supervisors were court-martialed and found guilty under article 124 of the National Defence Act (Negligent Performance of Duties). The Commanding Officer of the Airborne, Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu, was tried twice by courts-martial acquitted of wrong-doing both times. Soon after the death of Shidane Arone came to public attention, other actions by the Airborne also began to be scrutinized. Days earlier, a patrol from the Reconnaissance Platoon had shot and killed a young Somali night-time infiltrator and seriously injured another. A temporarily attached Air Force flight surgeon, Major Barry Armstrong, stated in letters home which he subsequently leaked to the press, that he judged, after seeing the body, that the death of one of the Somalis was an "execution". He subsequently accused the Reconnaissance Platoon commander, Captain Michel Rainville, of destroying his photographic evidence, but these accusations were never proven and the officer was tried and acquitted. Captain Rainville would later be charged with torturing one of his own soldiers in a mock-exercise, that included anal-rape and psychological torture.

Home-video footage of another trooper, Cpl Matt McKay, was found, in which he stated that "we ain't killed enough niggers yet." Predeployment photographs of McKay performing a Nazi salute in front of a Swastika were also published. Video of brutal hazing rituals also came to light.

DND response

The debate over what led to the brutal events in Somalia, and why military leaders had sent a unit with known problems to that country were important ones, but the reaction to these events by the military leadership became the most important issue. DND headquarters in Ottawa was quickly informed about the death and arrest of the two soldiers. The political situation in Canada at the time was sensitive, with Minister of National Defence Kim Campbell in the midst of a leadership campaign to replace Brian Mulroney as leader of the ruling Progressive Conservative Party, and a federal election expected in the near future. Public relations relating to the incident were immediately taken over by Department of National Defence (DND) officials in Ottawa.

At first DND officials told the media, and also minister Campbell that Arone had likely died from natural causes. It took several weeks for the Canadian people to become aware of the actual events in Somalia. These reports, especially once Private Brown's picture became public created an outcry in Canada. The high regard the Canadian people had for their armed forces, especially the peacekeepers, was damaged. The reports also generated intense media interest, and how these investigations were dealt with would become the focus of public investigations. Highly placed members of the military leadership were accused of fraudulently altering documents prior to handing them over to journalists. The existence of other documents was denied, and some others were destroyed.ref|cover Criticism also focused on the fact that it took five weeks to order a high-level investigation into the events in Somalia.

Perhaps also overlooked in this tragedy was the use of the antimalarial drug, Lariam (Mefloquine), which produces some severe side effects in some people such as aggressive mood swings, neuropsychiatric disorders, manic behaviour, and hallucinations. Soldiers were given Lariam while on duty in Somalia, as this is an area affected by malaria. Roche U.S.A., the drug's manufacturer, conceded that Lariam can cause the severe side effects noted above.

omalia Inquiry

The public outcry began in earnest in 1994. The new government of Jean Chrétien's Liberal Party initiated a highly visible Somalia Inquiry in 1994 under Federal Court Judge Gilles Létourneau. Officially known as the Somalia Commission of Inquiry, its hearings were broadcast daily in both languages, nationally.

As the inquiry unfolded, home videos of initiation rites in the CAR's French-speaking commando found their way into the media. The new Minister of National Defence David Collenette argued that the videos were disgusting, demeaning and racist. With the continued accumulation of such politically damaging visibility, the Minister of National Defence ordered the Canadian Airborne Regiment disbanded in 1995. It has been suggested that this move was as much driven by budget cuts to the Canadian Forces as by the Somalia Affair, but there is no question that the affair gave the Minister the public support needed to disband the regiment.

The respected Chief of the Defence Staff General John de Chastelain, who had not supported the minister's disbandment order of the Airborne, resigned under a cloud. His successor, Air Force General Jean Boyle was forced to resign only a few months after accepting the role when, in a gesture uncharacteristic of military tradition, he blamed his subordinates for previous wrong doing under his command. Minister of National Defence David Collenette was also forced to resign, partially due to the affair.

The inquiry ran until 1997 when it was cut short by the government in the months before the 1997 election. The government was critical of the direction of the inquiry, noting that it was far exceeding its mandate, as it continued to focus on political and administrative aspects of Armed Forces overall management. Indeed, the conduct of the new government after the Somalia affair and the search for documents now absorbed much of the inquiry's attention, as reflected in its report. The inquiry had run long over its allotted timeframe and budget. The decision to end the inquiry received visible media attention and may have contributed to the defeat of the new Defence Minister Doug Young in the 1997 election. The inquiry was never able to examine top level governmental decision-making, nor did it actually examine the alleged events in Somalia.

The final report of the inquiry was a striking attack on the procedures, support and leadership of the Canadian Forces and the Ministry of Defence. Many of the top officers in the Canadian Forces were excoriated, including three separate Chiefs of the Defence Staff. The CAR had been rushed into a war zone with inadequate preparation or legal support. Enquiry chair Brigadier-General Loomis noted that the operation had changed, in December 1992, "from a peacekeeping operation, where arms are used only in self-defence, to one where arms could be used proactively to achieve politico-military objectives...In short the Canadian Forces were being put on active service and sent to war (as defined by Chapter 7 of the UN Charter)." Its deployment into "war" had never been debated in parliament and indeed the Canadian public had been led to believe by its government that the CAR was on a "peacekeeping" mission. After the events the leaders of the Canadian Forces had been far more concerned with self-preservation than in trying to find the truth. The inquiry report singled out Major-General Lewis MacKenzie as a major exception, as he took full responsibility for any errors he made.

Effect of the Affair on the Canadian Forces

The affair had a number of long lasting effects. While it is difficult to separate the effects of the affair on Canadian Forces morale from those of the concurrent defence spending cut, it did exacerbate feelings of distrust towards the media and politicians among many CF members.

At the same time, public trust in the Canadian Forces suffered and recruitment became more difficult. Public revulsion provided support for the sharp cuts to military spending introduced by the Liberal government. Many of the report's comments, along with the sustained media criticism of the military, led to the hasty imposition of policies designed to ensure nothing similar to the Somalia Affair could happen again. It has been argued that many of these practices, such as the micro-management of training, operations and disciplinary processes from NDHQ and the resultant restrictions on commanding officers, hamper the flexibility of operational units. Since the events in Somalia, Canada has become far less ready to participate in United Nations Peacekeeping efforts. Once playing an important role in the majority of UN efforts, in subsequent years Canada has been more ready to simply provide indirect support.

Canada was not the only country to face problems in Somalia. There were severe casualties on all sides in the warlord-dominated chaos. The Battle of Mogadishu resulted in 500-1000 Somali militia and civilian deaths, as well as eighteen American and two Pakistani deaths, following which the US decided to leave the country. Soldiers of other countries also faced charges of misconduct: Italian troops were photographed appearing to rape a Somali woman and Belgian soldiers took photographs of themselves urinating on and burning Somalis.

Other long term effects on the Forces included the adoption of sensitivity training, including SHARP (Standard for Harassment and Racism Prevention) training, which became mandatory for every single member of the Forces, and was accompanied by a declaration of "zero tolerance" on racism and harassment of any kind, including hazing. In the aftermath of the Somalia affair, video of brutal hazing rituals in the Airborne Regiment had been met with public outrage and disgust when they were made public.

The efficacy of these measures was called into question in July 2008, when Col. Serge Labbé, the officer who led the Airborne to disgrace, was promoted to Brigadier General. The promotion was made retroactive to July 2000, rewarding Labbé with a cash award and improved pension benefits in advance of his retirement.


* Bercuson pg. 214
* Bercuson pg. 211
* Bercuson pg. 2
* Bercuson pg. 7
* Koring, Paul. "The Globe and Mail". May 21, 1996. pg. A1


*David Bercuson " Significant Incident: Canada's Army, the Airborne, & the Murder in Somalia" 1997
*Peter Desbarats "Somalia Cover-Up; A Commissioner's Journal" 1997
*Sherene Razack. "Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism." 2004
* [ Canadian Encyclopedia "Boyle maintains Innocence]
* [ CBC Archives] - The Somalia Affair
* [ Final Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia]
* [ Somalia Inquiry] - official report (link to Executive Summary)
* [ Somalia Online] News and Discussions about Somalia

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Outline of Somalia — See also: Index of Somalia related articles …   Wikipedia

  • Piracy in Somalia — Map of areas under threat by Somali pirates. Pirates holding the …   Wikipedia

  • North Star Affair — Part of Piracy in Asia Chinese pirates attacking a merchant ship …   Wikipedia

  • Somali Civil War — Somalia Civil War Part of the Horn of Africa conflicts and War On Terror A Black Hawk helicopter, callsign Super 6 4, over the …   Wikipedia

  • The Canadian Airborne Regiment — Infobox Military Unit unit name=The Canadian Airborne Regiment caption=Cap badge of The Canadian Airborne Regiment dates=8 April 1968 1 September 1995 country=Canada branch=Army type=Line Infantry role=Airborne Infantry command structure=Royal… …   Wikipedia

  • Michel Rainville — Captain Rainville was a Canadian soldier who has courted controversy on several occasions for his orders leading to public outcry. He was ultimately acquitted of criminal charges for his actions, but released from military service.[1] Contents 1… …   Wikipedia

  • David Collenette — David Michael Collenette Member of Parliament for Don Valley East In office 1993–2004 Preceded by Alan Redway Succeeded by Yasmin Ratansi …   Wikipedia

  • Shidane Arone — (Somali Shidane Caroone , 1977? 17 March, 1993) was a Somali teenager who was beaten to death by Canadian soldiers from the Canadian Airborne Regiment.cite news url= 1 71 723/conflict war/somalia/ title=The Somalia… …   Wikipedia

  • Kyle Brown (Canadian soldier) — Private Kyle Brown was a Canadian soldier implicated in the death in custody of Somali teenager Shidane Arone.cite news url= 1 71 723/conflict war/somalia/ title=The Somalia Affair publisher=CBC accessdate=2007 11 23]… …   Wikipedia

  • Operation Deliverance — v · …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.