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Iraq war deserters merit sanctuary

Some 40 years ago, then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam and, like many Canadians, was openly sympathetic to the thousands of young Americans who crossed the border into Canada to evade the draft. Trudeau said at the time, "Those who make the conscientious judgment that they must not participate in this war … have my complete sympathy, and indeed our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism."

Those were heady days and the Vietnam War had galvanized the young around the world into a spirit of revolt. Canada then received from 50,000 to 100,000 Americans, draft dodgers and deserters alike. The draft is no more, but similar issues of conscientious objection to an illegal war have now come to the fore with the arrival of an estimated 150 American soldiers in Canada in search of asylum. The question is, should those who signed up for service in the U.S. Armed Forces and gone AWOL be granted refuge?

Many who first supported the U.S. invasion accepted the fact that the war was illegal but believed what is now known as trumped up evidence that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling Weapons of Mass Destruction. The world now knows this was a fabrication. Others believed the U.S., as sole super-power was being the world's police officer in ridding the Iraqis of its murderous tyrant, Saddam. But knowing now how badly the post-invasion was mismanaged, it is perfectly reasonable on a moral level that those who enlisted have seen the horror of it all and are being asked to redeploy for a third and fourth tour of duty can legitimately refuse to take part in an illegal war and occupation.

With a civil war raging, at least 90,000 Iraqis killed, possibly many more, and more than 4,000 U.S. military dead, is it not legitimate for soldiers to reject the effort and renege on their contracts on moral grounds? Canadian courts in dismissing refugee claims in two cases have set aside the issue of the war's legality. Justice Anne Mactavish of the Federal Court wrote in the case of Jeremy Hinzman in 2006 that the legality of the war "is not before the court and no finding has made in this regard." The Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear appeals in Hinzman's case and that of deserter Brandon Hughey. His lawyer, Jeffry House, noted that in 1995 the Federal Court granted refugee status to a deserter from Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, accepting the argument he should not be compelled to take part in an illegal war. The difference, of course, is that deserters returning to the U.S. face court martial, dishonourable discharges and possible jail terms of five years or so, while an Iraqi deserter forced to return home would have faced torture and death.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien wisely led a government that refused to participate in the U.S. led invasion and subsequent occupation. In so doing he signaled Canada's unease with the justification, moral underpinning, and dynamics of what is now a bloody quagmire. As such, we regret the Harper government is so supportive of U.S. policies that it will not emulate Trudeau's example in showing the moral and political courage and progressive leadership to challenge American policy by offering refuge to U.S. draft evaders and war resisters on moral grounds. They deserved it then, they deserve it now.



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