Conflict had been constant in Somalia since 1977. During that year, the military government in Somalia claimed the area of Ogaden in Ethiopia. War broke out as troops of the Communist Ethiopian regime repulsed a Somali invasion. In 1989, rebel forces overthrew the military government of General Siad Barre. Various tribes and political factions fought for control of Somalia, and local warlords took advantage of the chaos to seize different regions. The constant fighting, which impeded the work of aid agencies trying to get supplies to affected areas, resulted in starvation for the civilian population. Local warlords often confiscated relief convoys sent to Somalia by the Red Cross, United Nations (UN), and various other non-governmental organizations.
In April 1992, the UN Security Council established UN Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM) under provisions of Chapter 6 of the UN Charter. This chapter authorizes the use of force "only in self-defence in the peaceful settlement of disputes under international law." The goal of this mission was to assist in the distribution of relief supplies to deal with widespread famine. UNOSOM was not successful in this endeavour, primarily because it only had 930 support troops, a figure that was grossly inadequate to deal with the scale of civil disorder present in Somalia. In the weeks following the Security Council resolution, the situation progressively deteriorated, and, in August, four additional security battalions of 750 troops were authorized for deployment in four zones of the country. In August 1992, the Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, committed a Canadian battalion (the Canadian Airborne Regiment) as one of these four battalions. Through a new Security Council resolution, the UN force was further "authorized to fire effectively in self-defence if deterrence should not prove sufficient."
In late 1992, after several months of preparation, the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR) was deemed ready for its role in protecting the port of Bossasso in northern Somalia. The goal was to allow the community to receive humanitarian aid. Despite the efforts of such operations, however, the violence in Somalia continued to escalate. Various options were being considered, but the new Secretary General, Egypt's Boutros Boutros-Ghali, favoured ending the UNOSOM peacekeeping mission and intervening with a larger force working under the UN Charter Chapter 7 peace enforcement mandate. Chapter 7 allowed the use of more robust warlike measures to suppress the local armed factions that were impeding the distribution of relief supplies in the country. (Somalia, like many famine situations, was a classic case of food being denied to one group by another for political reasons). On 3 December, the Security Council, responding to a request from the United States to form a coalition and restore law and order in Somalia, authorized Unified Task Force Somalia (UNITAF). Operating under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, UNITAF was sanctioned to use all force required to establish a secure environment for relief operations in Somalia. The operation was to be commanded by the United States and funded by member states, not the UN. Canada was asked to modify its role and take part in this new non-UN coalition under U.S. command, and the Canadian Airborne Regiment was given this new assignment in December 1992, just days before it was to be deployed to Bossasso.
In order to allow the regiment to better perform these duties, the CAR was granted a national command component, a helicopter squadron, a support ship, an engineer squadron, a squadron equipped with Cougar armoured cars with their 76mm guns, and greater support elements. This "battle-group" deployed to Somalia over the months of December 1992 and January 1993.
The CAR found itself responsible for maintaining law and order in the Belet Huen sector. This region is in the center of the country on the main road from the Somali capital of Mogadishu to Ethiopia. The forces of the local warlords quickly evacuated the area, and the various aid agencies were able to distribute substantial amounts of food and medical supplies to the civilian population. The Canadian contingent then proceeded to build a local infrastructure of legal, medical, and educational services. The Canadian mission in Somalia, however, was significant for more than the provision of humanitarian assistance. The beating death of a Somali youth at the hands of soldiers from the Canadian Airborne Regiment, a tragedy deriving from a clearly illegal order to "rough up" infiltrators to deter pilfering, sparked considerable controversy in Canada. Indeed, a government inquiry was eventually established to investigate the conduct of Canadian forces in Somalia.
For a detailed account of the Canadian mission to Somalia, please see Canada, Department of National Defence, "Report of the Somalia Commission of Inquiry." Available online at www.dnd.ca/somalia/vol1/v1c12e.htm.