First published on April 5, 2007 in Eye
By Reuben Apple
Americans, insurgents, militiamen and others
have killed 30,000 Iraqis, if you believe George
Bush, or some 600,000 according to researchers
at Johns Hopkins University. The United States
did not invade in self-defence, and the United
Nations did not say America could attack. The
new Iraqi oil law and Abu Ghraib are examples
of systematic plunder and torture.
The International Criminal Court has a statute
that says soldiers must refuse to participate
in this sort of behaviour. Now Americans who deserted
their army and have come to Canada are asking
our Federal Court of Appeal for the right to say
six words, one for every 100,000 dead: "We
think this killing is unlawful."
If they are allowed to make that claim, the hundreds
of US soldiers who have come here may be able
to stay. If not, they and future deserters could
spend years in American prisons for quitting a
mission they know constitutes, in legal terms,
and more than one "war
crime." In 2005, the Immigration and
Refugee Board ruled that the war's legality, which
is central to these soldiers' claims for refugee
status, is not relevant. It is. The soldiers deserted
largely because they realized they had been deceived
by their government and were participating in
serious crimes. Soon, the Court of Appeal will
be able to tell the Board to either hear that
the Iraq War is illegal or grant these soldiers
refugee status immediately.
Lawyer Jeffry House evaded the draft during the
Vietnam War and, he says, "reported
to Canada instead." At the cost of
his time and energy, he advocates for Iraq War
deserters, people who can't pay standard fees,
if any. House is the kind of citizen Canada earns
when we accept the moral best that America cannot
always keep for itself. House says that "to
imprison someone for refusing to participate in
war crimes is persecution," exactly what
our refugee policy is designed to prevent, but
he knows this case has a "political
component." Prime Minister Stephen
Harper should not be so considerate of Presidential
Prime Minister Trudeau
welcomed soldiers who deserted during the Vietnam
War saying, "Canada should be a refuge from
militarism." The story goes that when President
Nixon said our Prime Minister was an "asshole,"
Trudeau observed that he had "been called
worse things by better people." It has never
been in Canada's interest to kneel before a thug,
and this "middle power" was once capable
of great leadership. For the 50,000 young Americans
we took in during the war in Vietnam, we provided
dear relief. In the short term, it was a small
contribution for peace, much better than none.
Decades later, we saved lives by not joining
the invasion of Iraq, but we would save more if
today we opposed the violence actually and not
just in principle. Further, protecting conscientious
deserters will make future commanders-in-chief
and dictators pause to wonder how many of their
troops would follow an illegal order.
The historic and legal precedent set by Trudeau,
the merit of the resisters' case, and the benefits
to Canada and the larger world are reasons to
think deserters should be allowed to stay, but
the best argument may be the character of the
soldiers themselves. They are typical American
youth who have made unusual sacrifices, first
to fight, as they thought, for their country,
and now to resist war. Resister Ryan Johnson says
Canadians "need to wake up and get involved
with something, nuclear disarmament, the Canadian
Peace Alliance, the War Resisters Support Campaign,
anything, because it's the people that can end
this." In his place, facing 2,000 days within
three cement walls and a fourth of iron, would
I be thinking about nuclear disarmament? Maybe.
Then there is Jeremy Hinzman's testimony to the
Refugee Board. In plain language, Hinzman replayed
the moral struggle that forced him to desert.
The result is a lesson in practical ethics and
an account of integrity against military coercion.
at the Immigration and Refugee Board website and
enjoy. At some point in the next few months, the
Court of Appeal could decide in Hinzman's favour
and send his case back to the Refugee Board, which
would then have to hear his argument that the
Iraq War is illegal. If they decide against him,
he will have to apply to the Supreme Court for
Three weeks ago, another soldier, Joshua Key,
spoke at the Bloor Street United Church. He shared
his experiences of Fallujah and Ramadi, of his
return to the United States, and of his escape
to Canada where he wrote his story and published
it as The Deserter's Tale. In his small-town Oklahoma
accent, he told a Toronto audience why he fled
the army and gave up his extended family, his
friends and his country. He said he could not
keep blowing the doors off Iraqi houses and arresting
every man inside because after a hundred home
invasions he never found anything illegal apart
from the occupation. Like Hinzman, Key is waiting
for the result of the appeal.
Members of the War Resisters Support Campaign
provide housing, friendship and sometimes money
to people like Joshua Key, but someone with power
recently gave a strange reward for this generosity.
Two weeks ago, three big men in trench coats,
"Toronto police," they said, came with
questions to the home of Winnie Ng, a campaigner
who once hosted Key. According to reports in the
Toronto Star, it seems American military authorities
would like to speak with Key. If they want to
discuss The Deserter's Tale with its author they
can go to his next talk or they can call his lawyer,
Jeffry House. Key has legal status in Canada as
a refugee claimant and officials should tell the
American government that our police, if those
men were our police, are not their messengers.
The immediate problem though, is that the Refugee
Board has said American deserters could not argue
that their government has been committing war
crimes, even though the Board regularly lets applicants
from other countries make that claim. If this
error is not corrected it will ensure persecution.
Fortunately, the Constitution gives us a Court
of Appeal "for the better administration
of the laws of Canada." The Court is hearing
the case now and this is their chance to better
the administration of our laws.
But Stephen Harper should not spend our legal
resources to avoid making a political decision.
Until he says deserters are generally welcome
the Refugee Board will slog through claims case-by-case.
The US Army admits that 27 per cent more of its
soldiers deserted in 2006 than in 2005, for a
total of 22,500 over the past six years, and President
Bush is now "staying
the course" by "surging"
another 20,000 Americans into Baghdad where the
situation is already "grave
and deteriorating," according to a
US Congressional Commission. Add a bit more stay-the-course
to grave-and-deteriorating and Canada can expect
a surge of Americans who will report to Canada
instead. Harper can simply ask his immigration
minister to start an efficient process by which
these people can begin their new lives as Canadians.
Inflicting years of instability on people coming
from a war would be cruel, but that is what we
are doing now.
Eventually, unless he is saved by the loss of
an election, Stephen Harper will have to let US
war resisters stay in Canada, or explain why he
won't. We should keep these soldiers who refused
to commit war crimes - we can use such motivated,
moral people. As a bonus, Americans will see that
we oppose what they're doing to Iraq, and we might
help end this war a few bodies sooner.