OTTAWA – The death of Shidane Arone at the hands of Canadian soldiers 20 years ago is often remembered as one of the darkest moments in Canadian military history.
But as the tragic, shocking story of Arone, a Somali teen who was tortured and killed after he was caught sneaking into a Canadian compound, fades further into the past, military historians fear Canada runs the risk of forgetting the lessons of a catalytic event in the history of the Canadian Forces.
Arone was just 16 years old when he was captured by Canadian troops outside the town of Belet Huen. What followed — his torture and death, the widely circulated images of soldiers smiling and posing alongside his bloodied body, and the attempted cover-up — proved a transformative event in the course of Canadian military history.
Stuart Hendin, an expert in the law of war who represented now-retired Brig.-Gen. Serge Labbe, one of the senior officers who became caught up in what came to be known as the Somalia Affair, currently teaches a course on morality, ethics and leadership at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Arone’s death, “a senseless, brutal act” that Hendin said “reflected a failure of discipline … and a failure of command responsibility” within the Canadian Forces.
Although much has been done to overhaul the Forces in the two decades since the disgraced 1993 Somalia peacekeeping mission, Hendin said remembering the tragedy is key to ensuring it never happens again.
“When we forget the lessons of history,” he said, “we’re bound to repeat them.”
The now-defunct Canadian Airborne Regiment was sent to Somalia in December 1992 as part of a UN peacekeeping force to help address famine and political instability in the country.
Months later, news broke of Arone’s death. That, along with news of an earlier, execution-style killing of another Somali intruder, touched off a national debate on whether it was just a few “bad apples” or a bigger, systemic problem within the Canadian military.
The fallout served a purpose by forcing the military to look inward and change, Hendin said. Today’s military is markedly different from the Canadian military in the post-Cold War era, largely due to the decade of scrutiny and introspection that followed the Somalia affair.
Two men were charged in the death. Pte. Kyle Brown served one-third of his five-year sentence for manslaughter and torture. Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee, who suffered brain damage after attempting suicide in 1993, was found unfit to stand trial. Charges against him were stayed in 2008.
The federal government commissioned a public inquiry in 1995 as more details emerged. The inquiry was shut down in 1996 before finishing its work, releasing its final report a year later.
Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, said he agrees some of the progress made after Somalia is being allowed to languish, particularly since Canada no longer seems to embrace its traditional role as a peacekeeper.
“It means that Canadian soldiers are less experienced and less knowledgeable and less well-prepared for peacekeeping and our peace operations in general,” said Dorn, noting that he doesn’t think Canada suffers from the same institutional failings that enabled Arone’s torture and death.
The federal government’s forthcoming Bill C-15, which proposes changes to the military justice system, could pose just such a risk, warned Peter Tinsley, the chief prosecutor for the Somalia cases in the 1990s.
The bill — which seeks to balance military police independence against the ability of commanders to hold them to account — files in the face of two decades of effort spent making military police more independent, Tinsley said.
“None of (the prosecutors) were proud of the events that took place,” he said. “But we did our jobs.”
Last month, Glenn Stannard, chairman of the Military Police Complaints Commission,told a Commons committee the bill would curtail guidelines that have been in place “since the period following the troubled Somalia deployment,which specifically sought to safeguard MP investigations from interference by the chain of command.”
The bill “doesn’t bode well and doesn’t recognize the lessons that should have been learned in Somalia,” Tinsley said.
The Canadian government remodelled the Canadian Forces by completely revamping education and professional standards. Officers must now have a university degree, military education offerings were expanded to emphasize arts and culture, an ombudsman was appointed, an independent military journal was created and the way in which CF trained and prepared for missions was updated.
At Canadian military colleges, the lessons of Somalia have not been forgotten. “It was a national shame that should be acknowledged and the lessons continually remembered,” said Dorn, who uses the Somalia affair as a case study in his classes.
Members of the modern-day Canadian military who remember the Somalia affair also hope it’s never repeated, said David Bercuson, the director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
“Anyone in the military with a long memory will know that has happened at least once, and will also know that that can happen again, and they don’t like it one bit,” he said. “People will think twice before trying to pull the sorts of stuff that was pulled.”
While there have been instances of torture and abuse since 1993, both Dorn and Hendin agreed Arone’s death and the Somalia affair are unique.
“Arone is different,” Hendin said. “What is frightening about the Arone matter is that there were, within earshot, individuals who could and should have stopped what was happening, and they didn’t — and that represents an absolute failure of command responsibility at several levels.”
Canadian soldiers have a responsibility to humanity, their country and their chain of command, he said, and if “they lose that perspective, then things can happen.”