Canadian Court Rules Immigration and Refugee Board Reconsider Asylum Claim for US War Resister

Democracy Now!

July 07, 2008

In a victory for US war resisters, Canadaís federal court ruled Friday that the Immigration and Refugee Board should reconsider the asylum claim of conscientious objector and Iraq war veteran Joshua Key. The court ruled that Key had been forced to systematically violate the Geneva Conventions as part of his military service in Iraq and that such misconduct amounts to a legitimate refugee claim. We speak with Key and his lawyer, Jeffry House. [includes rush transcript]


Joshua Key, Iraq war resister. Private in US Army and deployed to Iraq in 2003. Left after six-and-a-half months and filed for conscientious objector status in Canada. He is also the author of a book called The Deserterís Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq.

Jeffry House, lawyer for Joshua Key.

AMY GOODMAN: In a victory for US war resisters, Canadaís federal court ruled Friday the Immigration and Refugee Board should reconsider the asylum claim of conscientious objector and Iraq war vet Joshua Key. The court ruled Key had been forced to systematically violate the Geneva Conventions as part of his military service in Iraq and that such misconduct amounts to a legitimate refugee claim.

Fridayís ruling came a month after the June 3rd parliamentary motion to allow US war resisters and their family members to stay permanently in Canada. The non-binding motion called on the Canadian government to stop all deportation actions against US war resisters in Canada. A recent poll also found a majority of Canadians, 64 percent, are in favor of granting permanent residence status to conscientious objectors from the United States. As many as 200 US war resisters are currently living in Canada.

Weíre joined now by Iraq war resister Joshua Key, on the phone from Saskatchewan, also the author of The Deserterís Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq. Weíre also joined in Toronto by Joshuaís lawyer, Jeffry House, who himself was a Vietnam War resister, and we welcome you, as well, to Democracy Now!

Starting off with Joshua Key, your response to the Canadian court decision?

JOSHUA KEY: Itís very hopeful, and Iím glad to see the process go forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to Jeffry House. Jeffry, can you explain what the decision is? Itís not final, but explain exactly its significance.

JEFFRY HOUSE: Well, the federal court accepted the findings of the Refugee Board, that Joshua Key had been ordered by his superior officers to systematically violate the Geneva Conventions in the way in which he and his squad was operating in Iraq. The Refugee Board, the lower court, had said, OK, he did violate the Geneva Conventions, but he didnít commit war crimes, so heís not a refugee. And the federal court said, no, thatís too narrow of an understanding of the right of a soldier to refuse improper orders. And they said that if you were ordered to violate the Geneva Conventions on a systematic basis, you have a right to refuse, and any punishment that follows from that refusal will make you a convention refugee and protected by international law.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the decision was to send this case back to a lower court, is that right?

JEFFRY HOUSE: Thatís right, because thereís a question here in Canada, which is whether soldiers face punishment or not. We have argued and have given examples of soldiers who have refused to participate in the Iraq war who are in fact punished. But nonetheless, the Federal Court of Appeal here in Canada had said that thereís insufficient evidence that soldiers who refuse to serve will be punished by the government of the United States.

So, in Joshuaís case, if thereís even a hint that he will face punishment if heís returned to the United States, that would give rise to a refugee claim. However, if he were simply to be discharged and not further used as a soldier, then, according to the court decision, he would not be a convention refugee.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Key, can you tell us about your time in Iraq? What did you tell the court about your experience there?

JOSHUA KEY: I told them it was death, destruction and chaos on our behalf. Iíve looked at it as many times in my participation in Iraq in dealing with raids, traffic control points and just civilian killings, that you shouldnít have to go backónone of us should have to go back and participate in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you describe particular experiences you had in Iraq? And if you could speak as loud as you can.

JOSHUA KEY: There was one incident in Ramadi, my second time there, which I was on a QRF mission. It was like a SWAT team for the military for some instance. We were on call for a twenty-four-hour timeframe. We got the call late at night, early in the morning. It wasówe were going on the banks of the Euphrates River. We took a sharp right turn, and on the left-hand side I see four decapitated Iraqi bodies. When we parked our armored personnel carrier, I was told to get out and find evidence of a firefight or such, if happened.

There was this American soldier on the right with American soldiers around him, and he was saying they had lost it there. On the left-hand side, there was American soldiers kicking one of the heads around like a soccer ball. So at that time, I got back inside my APC.

The next day, I asked if I could see a written statement or if I could put myófor what I had seen at that location, and I was told it was none of my concern, none of my business. So, thatís when I started questioning things.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, what happened? How longóhow much longer were you in Iraq?

JOSHUA KEY: I was there for still another two-and-a-half months before I got a two-week leave period, which I went back to Fort Carson, Colorado. At that time, I called a military lawyer and asked him what was my situationóyou know, what could I do? I didnít want to go back to Iraq. I was already having symptoms of post-traumatic stressó

AMY GOODMAN: Again, Joshua, if you could speak as close to the phone and as loud as you can.

JOSHUA KEY: OK. They said thatóthe lawyer said I had two choices: either go back to Iraq or go to prison. At that time, me and my wife and my children, we made ourómy own decision and that was to go on the run, which we lived in Philadelphia for fourteen months underground, until we made the choice to come across to Canada.

AMY GOODMAN: There is a case of Corey Glass this week, who has a scheduled deportation back to the United Statesóheís another war resisteróon July 10th. Jeffry House, what happens to him now with this decision?

JEFFRY HOUSE: Well, itís not clear that this decision is directly related to him, although it might be that he would want to try to reopen his case in the federal court, because as it happens now, thereís a broadened definition of when a person, a soldier, has a right to conscientiously object, not to war in general, but to specific activities of a specific unit that he or she may be in. So, it may be possible for Corey Glass to do that.

At the same time, the Parliament of Canada has called on the government to just let every soldier in these circumstances stay in Canada if they havenít committed criminal offenses, which no one has. And that, I think, is the overriding reality here, that we have the elected representatives of the people of Canada telling the minority government: make something happen for these people. And itís just unfortunate that the government is dragging its feet and considering the issue and probably bending over backwards so that the US administration is not offended.

So, essentially, thatís Corey Glassís position right now. On the one hand, heís got a kind of invitation from the national Parliament to stay here, and on the other hand, the administrative procedures are at the last point before actual forced departure to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of Corey Glass. Protest actions are expected to take place this Wednesday at Canadian consulates in at least thirteen cities here in the United States. This is Corey Glassís message to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

COREY GLASS: I am Corey Glass, and Iím an Iraq war veteran. I left the US because of my opposition to the Iraq war. If Iím returned to the US, I could face court-martial, jail time or even redeployment to Iraq. I have not been discharged from the United States military, and Iím now currently in the Individual Ready Reserve.

The people of Canada support us. A recent poll shows that Canada wants war resisters to stay. And Parliament voted on June 3rd to allow us to stay in Canada. Iíve lived and worked in Canada for almost two years. I hope you will give full consideration to my case and the will of Canadian people, and please stop my deportation before July 10th.

AMY GOODMAN: That is war resister Corey Glass in Canada, appealing to the Canadian prime minister. Jeffry House, how many war resisters, US war resisters, are there now in Canada, and how does this compare to war resisters in Vietnam, like you?

JEFFRY HOUSE: Well, thereís about 200 war resisters here now, and basically thereís little comparison to the later period of Vietnam, in which there were 50,000 people here, mostly draft dodgers like myself, but also some who were deserters. Probably ten to 15 percent were military deserters from the Vietnam War.

One important thing, though, to remember is that early on in the Vietnam War, there were only a few hundred. And after a long struggle, the doors were forced open here. So, prior to 1969, the numbers increased without much possibility, much clear possibility, that people would be allowed to stay. But by November of 1969, Mr. Trudeau, the prime minister at that time, declared that Canada should be a refuge from militarism. Those were his words. And as a result, the doors opened and people flooded in, people who didnít want to participate in the Vietnam War.

So, consequently, I look at the numbers as a fluid thing. And it is, to some extent, kept low by the fact that up to this point the government of Canada hasnít opened the door. But given that Parliament has done so, given that Parliament has made this recommendation to the government, I think that we may soon be in a situation similar to that when Trudeau made his declaration, and many more people may end up here.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Key, what would happen if you came back to the United States?

JOSHUA KEY: I donít know. Iíve been told many different things and many different scenarios. You would only know, when you were sent back there, what would really happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the response of the Canadian people to you taking refuge in Canada?

JOSHUA KEY: Oh, from as far as the Canadian people are concerned, itís about 95 percent positive. Where I live, thereísóyou know, I donít hear any public objection. Iím sure some people donít approve or believe in what I did. But I look at that as they donít know the circumstances or the case. Most people, after they hear the complete story in detail, then they understand then itís notóthereís no question.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you want to come back to the United States if you were not punished?

JOSHUA KEY: Well, I would love to come back to my home. You know, thatís where my family lives. Thatís where my kidsí grandparents and their family lives. I mean, that will always be home. And Iíve never had an objection with the American people. Itís always been with the government, so I love America.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Key, weíll leave it there, Iraq war resister, a private in the US Army, deployed to Iraq in 2003. Thank you very much, Jeffry House, lawyer for Joshua Key, speaking to us from Toronto.