Military brings new shame on Canada

The country's UN peacekeepers are in trouble once more

When soldiers of the Second Canadian Battle Group in Bosnia were first assigned to protect the patients and staff of a mental hospital in Bakovici at the height of the ethnic conflict there in 1993, they were hailed as benevolent heroes, the stuff of which Canada's reputation for leadership in United Nations peacekeeping was made.

But the 7,000 pages of evidence from an independent investigation into incidents at the hospital, released in Ottawa last week, detail a story of drunken debauchery, black-market profiteering, sexual liaisons and physical abuse of patients that has dealt the already battered reputation of the Canadian armed forces another blow.

To make matters worse, the initial investigation into the incidents, undertaken by the military police and senior officers, was so badly done that by the time the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were called in to do an independent investigation, the three-year statute of limitations in the Canadian military justice code had come into effect.

The result is that nobody can be court-martialled. The 47 officers and soldiers involved in the incidents who are still in the army will be subjected to a career review panel which can recommend demotions or dismissals, but it has no power to impose more serious penalties.

Most of the soldiers' misbehaviour at the hospital involved excessive drinking and consensual sex with nurses and interpreters; the evidence showed that it was often nurses who supplied the black-market booze for the liaisons with soldiers. But in one incident, soldiers shaved the armpits and genital area of a 17-year-old female patient and in another they got into a fight with a male patient over a bottle of beer.

Equally serious is what happened in the military chain of command. When the Canadian commander in Bosnia raised the initial military police investigation with his superiors in Ottawa, they told him they did not want to hear about it and that he should keep it in his locker for the future, if required.

The Bosnia revelations come at a time when a commission of inquiry is in the middle of an investigation into what went wrong in the Canadian peacekeeping mission in Somalia four years ago.

Then, a group of soldiers tortured and beat to death a 16-year-old Somali prisoner a few days after two Somali suspected thieves were shot by soldiers in the Canadian compound in Belet Huen and one was killed.

Earlier this week, Defence Department headquarters dropped another bombshell when it announced that a senior officer in the 750-member Canadian contingent in Haiti had been stripped of his command and brought back to Canada for behaviour that "did not live up to the standards expected of a leader in the field". While on his way back from a New Year's Eve party, Lieut- Col Roch Lacroix drew his pistol on a truck driver who was blocking his way.

The recent revelations follow previous evidence of a breakdown in discipline and poor leadership on armed forces bases in Canada, which led to the Canadian Airborne Regiment being disbanded. The question now being asked is how what appears to be a systematic breakdown of authority with the Canadian forces has been allowed to happen.

The scandals have also raised questions about whether the Canadian military is fit to undertake any further peacekeeping assignments, once considered an important cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy.

Speaking from Thailand yesterday, where he is leading a trade mission, the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, ordered the new Defence Minister, Doug Young, to do whatever was necessary to "clean out the rot".

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