Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Somalia, Interrupted

"We can only hope that Somalia represents the nadir of the fortunes of the Canadian Forces. There seems to be little room to slide lower. One thing is certain, however: left uncorrected, the problems that surfaced in the desert in Somalia and in the boardrooms at National Defence Headquarters will continue to spawn military ignominy. The victim will be Canada and its international reputation."

The entire Somalia Inquiry report is here.


From its earliest moments the operation went awry. The soldiers, with some notable exceptions, did their best. But ill-prepared and rudderless, they fell inevitably into the mire that became the Somalia debacle. As a result, a proud legacy was dishonoured.

Systems broke down and organizational discipline crumbled. Such systemic or institutional faults cannot be divorced from leadership responsibility, and the leadership errors in the Somalia mission were manifold and fundamental: the systems in place were inadequate and deeply flawed; practices that fuelled rampant careerism and placed individual ambition ahead of the needs of the mission had become entrenched; the oversight and supervision of crucial areas of responsibility were deeply flawed and characterized by the most superficial of assessments; even when troubling events and disturbing accounts of indiscipline and thuggery were known, there was disturbing inaction or the actions that were taken exacerbated and deepened the problems; planning, training and overall preparations fell far short of what was required; subordinates were held to standards of accountability by which many of those above were not prepared to abide. Our soldiers searched, often in vain, for leadership and inspiration.

Many of the leaders called before us to discuss their roles in the various phases of the deployment refused to acknowledge error. When pressed, they blamed their subordinates who, in turn, cast responsibility upon those below them. They assumed this posture reluctantly - but there is no honour to be found here - only after their initial claims, that the root of many of the most serious problems resided with "a few bad apples", proved hollow.

We can only hope that Somalia represents the nadir of the fortunes of the Canadian Forces. There seems to be little room to slide lower. One thing is certain, however: left uncorrected, the problems that surfaced in the desert in Somalia and in the boardrooms at National Defence Headquarters will continue to spawn military ignominy. The victim will be Canada and its international reputation.

The following is a summary of the final report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia. To the best of our ability, the report fulfils our obligation under various orders in council to investigate the chain of command system, the leadership, discipline, actions and decisions of the Canadian Forces, as well as the actions and decisions of the Department of National Defence, in respect of the Canadian Forces' participation in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Somalia in 1992-93.

During the deployment of Canadian troops, events transpired in Somalia that impugned the reputations of individuals, Canada's military and, indeed, the nation itself. Those events, some of them by now well known to most Canadians, included the shooting of Somali intruders at the Canadian compound in Belet Huen, the beating death of a teenager in the custody of soldiers from 2 Commando of the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR), an apparent suicide attempt by one of these Canadian soldiers, and, after the mission, alleged episodes of withholding or altering key information. Videotapes of repugnant hazing activities involving members of the CAR also came to light. Some of these events, with the protestations of a concerned military surgeon acting as a catalyst, led the Government to call for this Inquiry. It is significant that a military board of inquiry investigating the same events was considered insufficient by the Government to meet Canadian standards of public accountability, in part because the board of inquiry was held in camera and with restricted terms of reference. A full and open public inquiry was consequently established.

The principal conclusion of this Inquiry is that the mission went badly wrong: systems broke down and organizational failure ensued. Our Inquiry canvassed a broad array of issues and events and a massive body of documentation and testimony to reach this unhappy conclusion. Even then, in two major respects, we encountered considerable difficulty in fulfilling our obligations.

First, the Inquiries Act provides the authority to subpoena witnesses, hear testimony, hire expert counsel and advisers, and assess evidence. Under normal circumstances, such powers should have given us the confidence to present our findings without qualification. However, on January 10,1997, while Parliament was adjourned, the Minister of National Defence announced that Cabinet had decided that this Inquiry had gone on long enough, that all hearings must be cut off on or about March 31,1997, and that a report with recommendations was required by June 30, 1997.
This was the response of the Government to our letter setting out reporting date options and requesting an extension until at least December 31, 1997, a period of time that would have allowed us to conclude our search for the truth. That search had already involved, among other things, thousands of hours of preparation and cross-examination of the individuals who played various roles in the Somalia deployment - and as time progressed, the superior officers to whom they reported. As our investigation progressed, we were able to move closer to the key centres of responsibility as we moved up the chain of command. Unfortunately, the Minister's decision of January 10, 1997, eliminated any possibility of taking this course to its logical conclusion and prevented us from fully expanding the focus to senior officers throughout the chain of command who were responsible before, during and after the Somalia mission. (emphasis added)

The unexpected decision to impose a sudden time constraint on an inquiry of this magnitude is without precedent in Canada. There is no question that it has compromised and limited our search for the truth. It will also inhibit and delay corrective action to the very system that allowed the events to occur in the first place.

Second, the careful search for truth can be a painstaking and, at times, frustrating experience. Public inquiries are equipped with the best tools that our legal system can provide for pursuing the truth, but even with access to significant procedural powers, answers may prove elusive.

Even in those areas where we were able to conduct hearings - on the pre-deployment phase of the mission and part of the in-theatre phase - we were too often frustrated by the performance of witnesses whose credibility must be questioned. The power to compel testimony was our principal mechanism for determining what transpired in Somalia and at National Defence Headquarters. Some 116 witnesses offered their evidence to the Inquiry in open sessions broadcast on television across Canada.
Giving testimony before a public inquiry is no trivial matter. It is a test of personal and moral integrity that demands the courage to face the facts and tell the truth. It also involves a readiness to be held to account and a willingness to accept blame for one's own wrongdoings. Many soldiers, noncommissioned officers, and officers showed this kind of integrity. They demonstrated courage and fidelity to duty, even when doing so meant acknowledging personal shortcoming or voicing unwelcome criticism of their institution. We are cognizant of institutional as well as peer pressure facing the witnesses who appeared before us. These soldier-witnesses deserve society's respect and gratitude for contributing in this way to the improvement of an institution they obviously cherish.

However, we must also record with regret that on many occasions the testimony of witnesses was characterized by inconsistency, improbability, implausibility, evasiveness, selective recollection, half- truths, and plain lies. Indeed, on some issues we encountered what can only be described as a wall of silence. When several witnesses behave in this manner, the wall of silence is evidently a strategy of calculated deception.

Perhaps more troubling is the fact that many of the witnesses who displayed these shortcomings were officers, non-commissioned officers, and senior civil servants - individuals sworn to respect and promote the values of leadership, courage, integrity, and accountability. For these individuals, undue loyalty to a regiment or to the institution of the military - or, even worse, naked self-interest - took precedence over honesty and integrity. By conducting themselves in this manner, these witnesses reneged on their duty to assist this Inquiry in its endeavours. In the case of officers, this conduct represents a breach of the undertakings set out in their commissioning scroll.

Evasion and deception, which in our view were apparent with many of the senior officers who testified before us, reveal much about the poor state of leadership in our armed forces and the careerist mentality that prevails at the Department of National Defence. These senior people come from an elite group in which our soldiers and Canadians generally are asked to place their trust and confidence.

We are well aware of recent reports submitted to the Minister of National Defence addressing issues of leadership and management in the Canadian Forces. Certainly, such studies and reports by informed specialists are valuable. But only a full and rigorous public examination of these issues, with the opportunity given to members of the military to provide information and respond to criticism, can lead to a thorough assessment of the scope and magnitude of these problems. Only an extensive and probing analysis of the people, events, and documentation involved can lead to focused and meaningful change.

This Commission of Inquiry was established for that very purpose. Its truncation leaves the Canadian public and the Canadian military with many questions still unanswered. In fact, the decision to end the Inquiry prematurely in itself raises new questions concerning responsibility and accountability.

Although we have raised concerns about the credibility of witnesses and leadership in the armed forces, it would be unfair to leave an impression that the mission to Somalia was a total failure. While we point out flaws in the system and shortfalls in leadership, we must and wish to acknowledge that many soldiers and commanders performed their duty with honour and integrity. Accordingly, we strongly support the issuance of appropriate medals to those who served so well during this troubled mission.

Moreover, we feel it is important in a report of this nature to acknowledge the invaluable contribution that the Canadian Forces have made, and continue to make, on Canada's behalf. Thousands of soldiers have performed difficult and often dangerous tasks on our behalf in pursuit of the nation's goals. Most often their dedication, selflessness and professionalism have been taken for granted, because these qualities have been assumed to be the norm. That is what made the events involving Canadian Forces personnel in Somalia so unpalatable. It is the sharp contrast between those events and the accustomed performance of our military that elicited reactions of alarm, outrage, and sadness among Canadians. In the end, we are hopeful that our Inquiry will yield corrective measures to help restore the Canadian Forces to the position of honour they have held for so long.