Deserters have a right to stay in Canada

 By PAUL COPELAND - The Sudbury Star, 31 March 2009

The Harper government attempts to justify deporting U. S. Iraq War resisters with a familiar, but untrue, narrative. They say that unlike during the Vietnam War, U. S. soldiers are now volunteers and are not considered refugees by the United Nations. They say refugee applications are evaluated fairly on their own merits, and there is no need to create a separate program for U.S. Iraq War resisters.

All these statements are false.

Firstly, not all Vietnam War resisters were conscripts, and many Iraq War resisters are redeployed against their will. Vietnam War resisters included draft dodgers who fled before induction, those who accepted their draft notice and were inducted, and those who voluntarily joined the military services.

After a brief political struggle in 1969 concerning those who came to Canada after induction, Canada welcomed both groups without distinction. Although current war resisters volunteered and some completed their service, many found themselves involuntarily redeployed to Iraq. Programs of Stop-Loss and Individual Ready Reserve recall soldiers after they have been discharged. Many soldiers, like Jeremy Hinzman, have had their applications for conscientious objector status denied.

Secondly, it is not true that the UN does not consider war resisters refugees. Section 167 of the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status states that "a deserter or draft-evader may also be considered a refugee if it can be shown that he would suffer disproportionately severe punishment for the military offence on account of ... political opinion".

After being deported, war resister Robin Long was sentenced to 15 months in prison, the harshest punishment so far for resisting the Iraq War, partly because of his political statements about the war. Multiple Federal Court of Canada decisions have granted stays of removal on the grounds that U.S. war resisters who have spoken out against the war would suffer differential punishment.

Section 171 of the UNHCR Handbook states that "where the type of military action, with whom an individual does not wish to be associated, is condemned by the international community as contrary to basic rules of human conduct, punishment for desertion or draft-evasion could ... in itself be regarded as persecution."

This is precisely the position in which Iraq War resisters find themselves, refusing, like Canada under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, to participate in a war condemned by the international community.

Thirdly, while war resisters who have applied for refugee status may be treated the same as every other applicant, the government's blanket opposition to war resisters as revealed in public comments by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney -- who labelled them "bogus refugee claimants" -- led the Canadian Council for Refugees to rebuke the minister because such a statement gives "the strong appearance of political interference" and "threaten claimants' right to an unbiased decision."

And to date, where U.S. war resisters have attempted to access the humanitarian and compassionate grounds application process, instead of their claims being decided fairly, the majority of these individuals have received negative decisions that are almost identical word for word.

The final argument of the government is that they do not believe in creating a program to allow war resisters to apply for permanent residence. But the majority of Canadians do, and Parliament passed a motion to that effect last June. Rather than listen to Parliament, the government has been deporting war resisters to punishment in the U.S., justifying government actions with a series of false arguments.

It is time for the Conservatives to stop making false claims, and to start respecting the will of Parliament. Iraq War resisters should be allowed to apply for permanent resident status and remain in Canada.

Paul Copeland is a cofounder of the Law Union of Ontario, a previous co-president of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted and Life Bencher (director) of the Law Society of Upper Canada.