Canada Shuts Doors to US War Resisters

Two US Army deserters who fled to Canada and sought refugee status on grounds of their opposition to the war in Iraq have lost their bids to have the Supreme Court of Canada hear their cases.

The court refused to hear the appeals of Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey Thursday, who were rejected two years ago by Canada’s immigration authorities.

The board ruled they would not be at risk of their lives if they returned to the United States, nor were they at risk of "cruel and unusual treatment or punishment."

Hinzman and Hughey deserted the US Army in 2004 after learning their units were being deployed to Iraq to fight in a war they have called immoral and illegal. The men argue that serving in Iraq would force them to commit crimes against civilians, and that they would be persecuted if forced to return to the United States.

There are currently about 200 US Army deserters in Canada. Among them is Ryan Johnson of Visalia, California. He fled to Canada in 2005, the day his unit deployed to Iraq.

"The Canadian government decided not to fight an illegal war," he told IPS. "Canada was going to go into the war in Iraq, but then decided that because the UN did not sanction it, Canada would not participate in the war in Iraq. That’s a major reason that I came to Canada. Canada felt the same way I did about the war in Iraq."

Canadian immigration officials ruled, however, that "as mere footsoldiers," US war resisters "could not be held responsible for the breach of international law committed by United States in going to Iraq." Immigration authorities also ruled that "ordinary footsoldiers are not expected to make own personal assessments as to the legality of any conflict they may be called upon to fight." They also said there is no internationally recognized right to object to a particular war.

"It’s disappointing that the Supreme Court of Canada would not even go as far as to hear our case," Johnson said. "It is definitely not something that is pertinent. They’ve used legality of war in other refugee cases, I don’t know why in our case they refused to use the legality of the war in evidence."

A spokesperson for Canada’s immigration minister put a different spin on the Supreme Court’s decision.

"Canadians want a refugee system that helps true refugees," spokesperson Mike Fraser told Reuters.

"All refugee claimants in Canada have the right to due process and when they have exhausted those legal avenues we expect them to respect our laws and leave the country," he added.

During the Vietnam War, between 30,000 and 60,000 draft dodgers sought sanctuary in Canada. Veterans of that fight say the atmosphere in Canada today is very different than it was during the 1960s and 70s.

"Our government is pretty clear that it is pro-[George W.] Bush and [wants to] reassure Americans that the Canadian border is very secure," said Leigh Zaslofsky, who fled the United States in 1970 and now coordinates Canada’s War Resister Support Campaign.

"When I deserted I was able to apply for permanent residency and obtain it there if I passed a points assessment so that’s what I did," he said, "and I was readily admitted to Canada as a permanent resident and didn’t have to worry about being sent back to the United States."

Even so, US war resisters in Canada are not facing immediate deportation.

After losing their appeal at the Supreme Court, Hinzman and Hughey will now receive a "pre-removal risk assessment," which is designed to judge whether in the United States they would be at risk of torture, death or cruel and unusual punishment or treatment.

That’s only the beginning of a drawn-out deportation process that could go on for years.

"We still have a bit of time before anyone is looking at getting sent back imminently," Ryan Johnson said.

War resisters can also apply for permanent residency in Canada on humanitarian or compassionate grounds.

Meanwhile, supporters of US soldiers who fled across the northern border are turning their efforts toward the Canadian Parliament, which they hope will pass a law overruling existing policy – despite the opposition of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the National Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois. If they can get the center-left Liberal Party to go along, supporters say, such a bill could become law without Harper’s support.

"When I signed up for the Army in November 2003, I was thinking there were weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq had ties to 9/11," Johnson said. "Our president, our vice president, [then defense secretary] Donald Rumsfeld lied to us. They betrayed the American people and they’re betraying every soldier they send over there to fight a war based on false pretenses and greed."

Johnson has not seen his parents since he fled to Canada more than two years ago.

(Inter Press Service)