Somebody in Ottawa was bugging his phone—or so feared Peter Desbarats, one of the Somalia inquiry’s three commissioners. Then again, anyone might sound a little paranoid after the experience of probing the scandalous behavior of Canadian troops during their 1992-1993 mission to the African country. In Somalia Coverup: A Commissioner’s Journal, published last week, the journalist, author and academic ranges from concerns about telephone tapping to discrepancies in the accounts of senior officials over exactly who knew what, and when, about the killings of Somali citizens by Canadian troops. He also tackles the deteriorating relationship between the inquiry and the government. In the end, Somalia Coverup reiterates what Desbarats has said all along: with a federal election looming, politics drove the Liberal government to shut down the two-year inquiry last March. That decision, he declared
at his book launch, was “one of the most brazen coverups and denials of responsibility in the history of this country.”
Last week, the commissioner was still shaking his head at Ottawa’s efforts to control the damage of the Somalia scandal. Only days before Desbarat’s book launch, and during a week when Parliament was adjourned, Defence Minister Art Eggleton presented the government’s official response to the inquiry’s work. While the minister stressed he had accepted 132 of the commissioners’ 160 recommendations, Desbarats complained that Eggleton had ignored their key proposals: removing the supervision of military police from the senior command and establishing an independent inspector general to supervise the military justice system.
Desbarats, meanwhile, was not alone in
thinking that much remains to be examined in the Somalia affair. Tory Senators were pushing to reconstitute a special committee to pick up where the commission of inquiry left off—with the events leading up to the March 16, 1993, torture-killing of Somali teenager Shidane Arone. “The Liberals should go along with it,” threatened Tory Senate House leader John Lynch-Staunton. “Otherwise they will have a lot to answer to.”
With his book, the 64-year-old Desbarats tries to go where the commission could not. But the revelations offered in Somalia Coverup are hardly the sort to stagger governments. By conducting interviews after the inquiry was finished, he found contradictory versions of how and when the details of Arone’s death were passed on to then-defence minister Kim Campbell. Former deputy defence minister Robert Fowler, now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that on March 19,1993, he told Campbell’s acting chief of staff, Richard Clair, that Arone had died three days earlier “as a result of foul play at the hands of Canadians.” Clair, meanwhile, said he only learned on March 31 that torture was involved in the Somali youth’s death. Other than that, Desbarats does not say who is lying—just that the whole thing carries the unmistakable taint of coverup.
Is anyone still listening? Some Liberals feared that shutting down the inquiry would hurt them at the ballot box in the June 2 general election. But Somalia never emerged as a campaign issue. And no one within the party now expects a public backlash over Eggleton’s refusal to accept the inquiry’s major recommendations. “Maybe it has something to do with being Canadian and never having to fight for our rights,” Desbarats said about public apathy. Or perhaps it is just that, after gazing so long at the horror of what Canadian troops did in Somalia, Canadians now simply prefer to avert their eyes.
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