Dark Threats & White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism
In early 1993 Canadian soldiers taking part in a UN sanctioned peacekeeping mission in Somalia committed a number of acts of gross violence against members of the local Somali population. Stories, photos and videos of the acts and the events surrounding them gradually made their way into the public domain. The nature and extent of the violence shocked the public conscience. Investigations, charges, trials and even a public inquiry into what became known as the Somalia Affair ensued.
In Dark Threats & White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism (hereinafter Dark Threats & White Knights) Sherene Razack examines the racial underpinnings of this brutal episode in Canada's history and considers whether those underpinnings form the foundation for a more honest, yet less comfortable, understanding of the place that Canada and Canadians hold in the world. In so doing, Razack deconstructs the popular mythology that marks peacekeeping missions as noble ventures in order to reveal the pride and prejudices that inform the public's perception of such missions. Ultimately, as a consequence of the lessons learned from the Somalia Affair, Razack suggests that there is a pressing need to reconceptualize how such missions are perceived and carried out in the future. The book comprises four chapters, bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion.
In Chapter 1, Razack describes the emergence of a narrative at the end of the cold war depicting a New World Order, characterized by the disintegration of nation-states into ethnic civil war and attended by a growth in the number of tribal warlords, an increased sense of ethnic nationalism and an outbreak of barbaric acts of violence. Within this narrative so-called civilized nations (variously described by Razack as belonging to the North, the West and the First World), assume the burden of protecting the people of these less civilized nations (variously described as the South, "the nether regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe" (p. 16) and the Third World) from the "internal evil that threatens them" (p.17).
Razack dismantles this narrative to reveal that it is flawed because it fails to acknowledge the historical role that many of the so-called civilized nations have played in creating the colonial histories that underscore the disintegration and violence depicted in the New World Order. In the absence of this context, civilized nations view themselves as mere witnesses to the disintegration and violence rather than as participants in it and from this vantage point acquiesce to the possibility that peacekeepers engaged in missions to civilize these "nether regions" may be so overwhelmed by the savagery confronting them that they might themselves descend into it and commit acts of savagery. Within this narrative it is the peacekeeper that is traumatized and consequently it is the peacekeeper that becomes the victim of the story. Razack describes this phenomenon as "peacekeeping trauma" [End Page 225] (p.17). However, as Razack points out, the peacekeeping trauma narrative "depends for its coherency on the logic of rational men and women from white nations who encounter people and things in the south that are beyond rationality, things that can literally drive them mad" (p.18). Veiled in this "racial logic" (p.18) peacekeeping missions can easily be transformed into simplistic encounters between good and evil, obviating the need for any reference to historical, social or political context. Further, as Razack points out, the participation of middle power nations like Canada in peacekeeping missions framed in this way allows such nations to claim a place in the international family of civilized nations representing good in the fight against evil and this, in turn, gives them a relevance on the international stage that might otherwise be lacking. The explicit message in these narratives is that civilized nations bear the burden of saving less civilized nations from themselves.
In Chapter 2 Razack analyzes how individuals involved in peacekeeping missions enact the New World Order narratives identified in Chapter One. Razack asserts that the catalogue of violence perpetrated by American, Italian, Belgian and Canadian troops on Somalis in Somalia, including beatings, torture, acts of humiliation, rape and killings, is best understood as "colonial violence. That is to say, the violent practices in which peacekeepers engaged in Africa are practices intended to establish Northern nations as powerful and superior, nations in full control of the natives they have come to keep in line" (p.55). In support of this assertion Razack undertakes a case study, examining in some detail the circumstances surrounding the shooting of two Somalis, one fatally, by Canadian troops on 4 March 1993. Due to the number of thefts that had occurred from the Canadian camp at Belet Huen in Somalia, an order had been issued authorizing troops to shoot anyone seen infiltrating the camp. On the evening of 4 March, two Somalis were ambushed as they were walking near the perimeter of the camp and, according to soldiers involved in the shootings, "behaving as if they were planning to penetrate the perimeter of the camp" (p.78). As the Somalis fled from the ambush they were shot. Both were wounded and fell to the ground. One was shot again as he tried to get up, this time fatally. Properly characterized, Razack argues that the incident was an example of colonial violence borne out of a desire on the part of some Canadian soldiers, disoriented by a foreign and unwelcoming land, to teach the Somalis a lesson and to reassure themselves that they were, in fact, men who were "intact and in control" (p.84). Framed in this way, the peacekeeping mission had become "a kind of war, a race war waged by those who constitute themselves as civilized, modern and democratic against those who are constituted as savage, tribal, and immoral" (p.86).
Chapter 3 utilizes another case study, this time examining the events surrounding the death of Shidane Arone, a Somali captured by Canadian troops while in the vicinity of the Canadian camp on 16 March 1993. Once again, Arone was suspected of being a thief. He was taken to a bunker inside the camp where he was bound and subsequently tortured to death over the [End Page 226] course of several hours. Razack is careful to recognize that there may be more than one layer to the explanation for this tragic event, especially given that the two main perpetrators of the violence were themselves members of a racial minority, being Cree and part Cree. In peeling away the layers, Razack examines the "possible connections between the Aboriginal men's racially subordinate status within their unit and the violent strategies they may have adopted to negotiate the conflicts and contradictions" (p.114). Within this framework, Razack explores a number of possibilities. The first is that by their acts of extreme violence committed against a Somali the two central protagonists were "compensating for their diminished status as men through engaging in acts of subordination against lower status groups, a process popularly described as 'outwhiting the white guys'" (p.89). The second possibility is that the men were engaged in a strategy of repudiation, the purpose of which was to assert their individuality and racial identity by engaging in these acts of violence. The third possibility is that the "colonial shape of the encounter" (p.110) motivated the acts of violence. In this regard Razack explains how the degradation of Somalis and the use of violence against them had, by the time of the Arone killing, become so widespread that they were considered by many to have become an acceptable aspect of the Canadian mission in Somalia. Indeed, by one estimate, at least eighty soldiers inside the Canadian camp heard Arone's screams as he was tortured in the bunker over the course of his incarceration yet not one sought to intervene in a way that might bring an end to the violence (p.97). Within the colonial context of the encounter it had become acceptable for the peacekeepers to degrade and humiliate the local population in order to teach them a lesson, so enacting the New World Order narrative. In the end Razack is unable to choose one possibility over the others, concluding instead that any explanation for the behaviour of the two main protagonists has to "include both compensatory and repudiating practices, but more than this, it has to make room for the colonial violence operating in the peacekeeping encounter" (p.114).
However, as Razack explains in Chapter 4, making room for the colonial violence operating in the peacekeeping encounter in Somalia was not something that the various legal, military and public processes were inclined to do when the incidents comprising the Somalia Affair were considered back in Canada. With particular reference to the proceedings of the Commission of Inquiry, Razack reveals how a "public truth" (p.119) was constructed about the Somalia Affair that had the effect of reaffirming the "national dream of innocence" (p.119), a dream in which Canada is situated as "a non-imperial power without ambitions of conquest" (p.119). Within this narrative, Canada "went to Africa handicapped by our niceness and naïveté, and we were taken advantage of by our own unscrupulous military leaders. Made vulnerable by our own morality, we could either stay at home or risk trauma, the kind that comes when civilized peoples encounter a savagery for which they are unprepared. This is the final political use to which we put those images of violated Black bodies: we imagined a world in [End Page 227] which we were not implicated" (p.119). Razack argues that the various military trials, the public inquiry and the media reporting on them used this narrative as their starting premise and consequently chose to view the violence exhibited by Canadian troops in Somalia as a "fresh moment standing in the time of this dreamed history" (p.149), a moment whose effect was to dishonour an otherwise proud legacy of middle power peacekeeping and diplomacy. Within this environment the blame could easily be ascribed to a "few bad apples" (p.121); angry soldiers and their incompetent leaders who were found wanting in their response to the challenges presented by a mission to a culturally different and savagely hostile land. However, as Razack observes, to frame "the story as one of cultural difference neatly transforms the problem in Somalia from violence to cultural misunderstanding. Problems arise because the parties are different, not because they are enacting relations of domination and subordination" (p.139). Had the racial aspect of the violence in Somalia been investigated, as a number of interested advocacy groups that sought standing before the public inquiry submitted it should, it may have been possible to more accurately and honestly understand what Canadians were doing in Somalia in the first place. However, to do so would have required Canadians to shed the comfort of a national mythology that in effect insulated them from acts of violence occurring a world away and that absolved them of responsibility for those acts. The end result is neatly spelt out by Razack, who observes that if "the legal inquiries into peacekeeping violence tell us anything at all, it is surely that racial superiority disguises itself in the law as a story about hapless men from the North, obliged to civilize and keep Africans and other Third World peoples in line" (p.151).
Dark Threats & White Knights is an instructive and illuminating work of critical analysis. However, an anxiety sometimes felt with the technique of critical analysis is that while it is good for revealing the problem, it does not always offer the solution. It is not surprising then that in the Conclusion Razack observes that pressed "by audiences anxious to solve peacekeeping once and for all, I have often disappointed in my ability to provide the solution for Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, and so on" (p.165). However, such self-deprecation is unnecessary, for in the area of peacekeeping there can be no definitive solution until such time as the most deeply entrenched problems associated with this endeavour are fully and honestly recognized. In this regard, in the years since the transpiration of the events marking the Somalia Affair the United Nations, particularly through its Department of Peacekeeping Operations, has recognized the occurrence of acts of peacekeeper violence and has dealt with them by implementing various best practices for UN sanctioned peacekeeping missions. However, as Razack points out, the underlying causes of acts of peacekeeper violence must be fully appreciated if there is to be any meaningful dialogue on how to ensure that such acts are not perpetrated in the future and this requires an honest examination of the extent to which peacekeeping missions are underscored by the "colour line" (p.9) that divides so-called civilized nations from the [End Page 228] less civilized. Such examination has only become more pressing in the years since the events that mark the Somalia Affair.
In this regard, the 1990's were, to many, an era of great hope, an era in which the forces of globalization, strengthened by the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, promised a new interconnectedness between all people. It was an era in which many people hoped the colour line would fade, if not disappear altogether. However, the events of September 11, 2001 abruptly short-circuited that process. If anything, the colour line was re-drawn in darker ink as nations fell into a fresh fight of good against evil. Razack recognizes that in such a space the potential is increased for humans to dehumanize other humans by ceasing to consider their personhood. Witness for example the classification of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as enemy combatants and the consequent diminution of rights and privileges attended by such a classification, or the degrading treatment of prisoners held at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. While these are not the actions of Canadians, they are actions that are informed by the same prejudices that were operating amongst Canadian troops in Somalia in 1993; prejudices directed at identifying and isolating the racial Other and subjecting that entity to violence in a unfortunate and misguided attempt to reinforce the Self; prejudices that give the issues raised in Dark Threats & White Knights a pointed and ongoing relevance.
University of British Columbia