Stop deportation of war deserters
Jul 17, 2008

Canada has long opened its doors to refugees from violence and oppression in far-off lands. But what about deserters from the armed forces of our neighbour, the United States? Surely, it is said, we should draw the line there, no matter how much we might disagree with the American war effort in Iraq.

Actually, four decades ago we opened our doors to draft dodgers and deserters more than 50,000 of them who were fleeing participation in another American war, in Vietnam.

Today, there are barely 200 American deserters seeking asylum here. Still, the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are telling. American involvement in Vietnam was based on highly dubious premises (the Tonkin Gulf resolution and the "domino theory"), as in Iraq (weapons of mass destruction and the "war on terror"). The prosecution of the war in Vietnam led to charges of war crimes or violations of the Geneva Conventions in the treatment of non-combatants, as in Iraq. In neither war was the American involvement sanctioned by the United Nations. And in each case, Canada stayed on the sidelines.

Finally, as with Vietnam, most Americans were supportive of the war in Iraq at the outset but have turned against it as the deception of their own government has become apparent. Indeed, the front-running presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has promised to end the war.

Yet this week we have deported a U.S. army deserter potentially the first of many. Robin Long, who could face a prison term back home, sought refuge here because he was "morally" opposed to the Iraq war, just as his predecessors conscientiously objected to the Vietnam War.

The difference between then and now, we are told, is that the American forces in Vietnam were conscripted, whereas today it is an all-volunteer U.S. army. But is that really such a difference in the case of a war that is widely seen as illegitimate, even by Americans?

"A soldier who is told to fight (in Iraq) faces a conflict of values and loyalties," wrote Bob Rae, the Liberal foreign affairs critic, on our Comment page last week. "His president has told him things that he later discovers are quite untrue. His congressman and senator say
they were misled and would not have authorized the invasion had they been given accurate information. He realizes that what he's being asked to do is in no way authorized by international law. Political support for the mission is drying up. Hence the refusal to serve."

Apparently persuaded by that argument, the House of Commons voted last month in favour of a resolution calling on the government to allow deserters from "a war not sanctioned by the UN" to stay in Canada. But the government has ignored the vote, and dozens of
deserters those who don't end up before a sympathetic judge or refugee panel face deportation and possible imprisonment as a result.

It is time to reverse this process and recapture the spirit of the 1960s, when we welcomed those fleeing from a previous unjust war.