let them stay: two voices plus my heart

Lawrence Hill is a Canadian author. His book The Book of Negroes (titled Someone Knows My Name in the US) was a bestseller in Canada and long-listed the 2007 Giller Prize.

Hill also co-authored Joshua Key's moving memoir, The Deserter's Tale, which I have blogged about so many times. This essay of Hill's ran today in the Ottawa Citizen.
Just desertions
Canada should open its arms to soldiers fleeing the horrors of an illegal American war in Iraq

by Lawrence Hill

Now that the Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear the cases of the first two American deserters from the Iraq war to come knocking at its door, the last real hope for U.S. soldiers who have moral objections to the war lies in the hands of Canadians and our elected officials.

Last week, Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey -- the first two American military deserters to ask Canadian courts to allow them to stay in this country -- came to the end of their legal fight. By refusing them leave to appeal, the Supreme Court upheld decisions by lower courts and by the Immigration and Refugee Board to the effect that they were not genuine refugees and had no right to stay in this country.

Over the last few years, dozens of American soldiers have deserted and fled to Canada to avoid service or continued duty in Iraq. They have argued that they should be allowed to stay in this country rather than being forced to carry out an illegal and immoral war or being jailed for refusing to do so. To date, not one of them has convinced the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, or won any support from Canadian judges.

Two facts bear repeating.

First, the Anglo-American attack on Iraq in 2003 was an offensive -- not a retaliatory --strike. The war had no approval from the UN Security Council, and for this reason Canada's prime minister of the day, Jean Chr├ętien, refused to support it. In 2004, then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan declared explicitly that the U.S.-led war on Iraq was illegal.

Second, according to official UN policy, soldiers who are likely to be punished for having deserted military action "condemned by the international legal community as contrary to rules of human conduct" should be eligible for refugee status. To date, neither fact has been of any concrete assistance to Mr. Hinzman, Mr. Hughey or any of the other U.S. war deserters seeking asylum in Canada.

Sadly, Canadian courts and the Immigration and Refugee Board have danced around the question of whether deserters from the U.S. forces should not be compelled to take part in an illegal war. When she ruled against Jeremy Hinzman last year, Justice Anne Mactavish of the Federal Court of Canada wrote: "It should be noted that the question of whether the American-led military intervention in Iraq is in fact illegal is not before the Court, and no finding has been made in this regard." And when he ruled against Mr. Hinzman the previous year, Brian Goodman of the Immigration and Refugee Board noted that "evidence with respect to the legality of the U.S. embarking on military action in Iraq," would not be "admitted into evidence at the hearing of these claims." "They are ducking the question of whether a soldier can be forced to fight an illegal war and whether a soldier can be jailed for refusing to fight an illegal war," Mr. Hinzman's and Mr. Hughey's lawyer, Jeffry House, said in an interview. As he noted in written arguments to the Supreme Court of Canada, Mr. House pointed out that although our courts have so far refused to grant refugee status to Americans soldiers who are deserting military duty out of moral objection to the war in Iraq, in 1995 the Federal Court of Appeal granted refugee status to a deserter from Saddam Hussein's armed incursion into Kuwait, on the basis that he should not be compelled to take part in an illegal war.

"The courts are taking one stance for Saddam Hussein's soldiers and another one entirely for American soldiers," Mr. House said.

Other U.S. war deserters are still waiting to have their cases heard in court. One notable example is Joshua Key, whose case is explosive because he claims that he personally witnessed U.S. soldiers carry out beatings, robberies, and even fatal shootings against unarmed Iraqi civilians -- men, women and children -- when he served as a U.S. army private in Iraq in 2003.

As one of the lowest-ranking members of the 43rd Combat Engineer Company of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Mr. Key -- a 24-year-old Oklahoma man who joined the U.S. army to get a job and climb out of poverty -- was required by his officers to take part in about 200 raids on the homes of unarmed Iraqi civilians in Ramadi, Fallujah and other locations. During his six months of duty in Iraq, he never saw an Iraqi pointing a gun at him or at any other U.S. soldiers. The aggressions undertaken by his platoon were directly against unarmed men, women and children in their homes and cars, and on the streets.

As a matter of course, Mr. Key and his platoon mates blew up the doors of the houses of Iraqi civilians during the early morning hours, charged in, ransacked the houses and -- with complete impunity -- stole money, jewelry, rugs and televisions from the inhabitants.

What is worse, in their house raids -- which never turned up any weapons of mass destruction, or any evidence of planned insurrection -- Mr. Key and his fellow soldiers arrested every male they could find over five feet in height, and sent them along to American detention camps in Iraq. In patrolling the same neighbourhoods for six months, Key never again saw any of the men he had participated in arresting.

Later, he heard of the notorious Abu Ghraib detention camp and believed that some of the boys and men he arrested ended up there. To compound matters, Mr. Key watched men in his military company assault, shoot and kill unarmed Iraqi civilians in the course of their street patrols and at traffic control points, and he watched American soldiers defile the corpses of dead Iraqis. After deserting the army, Mr. Key fled with his wife and four children to Canada in 2005. He is appealing a decision by the Immigration and Refugee Board to deny him and his dependents refugee status. Shockingly, he is currently refused the right to work in Canada or to receive welfare in Saskatchewan. As a result, he and his wife and children live in dire poverty.

Mr. Key argues that the Geneva Conventions bar attacks on civilians and that he should not be compelled to violate international law or be punished for refusing to do so. However, Mr. Key's and the others' chances are weakened by last week's refusal by the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the cases of Mr. Hinzman and Mr. Hughey.

Between 1965 and 1973, more than 50,000 American draft dodgers and army deserters came to Canada, and were allowed to stay, because they refused to participate in the Vietnam War. Canada rolled out the welcome mat. Prime minister Pierre Trudeau himself said: "Those who make a 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." As a result, Canada benefited from the entry of thousands of skilled and engaged people who became passionate citizens -- lawyer Jeffry House and CBC radio host Andy Barrie among them.

Earlier this week, in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow asked the federal standing committee on citizenship and immigration to vote in favour of allowing conscientious objectors who have refused or left American military service in Iraq to be allowed to stay in Canada. Ms. Chow deferred the motion when the committee agreed to hold hearings into the matter on Dec. 11. But the House of Commons adjourns on Dec. 14 and doesn't resume until Jan. 29.

Without an iron will on the part of parliamentarians -- the same will that led the late Mr. Trudeau to welcome those who refused to fight in Vietnam -- Mr. Hinzman and Mr. Hughey face the risk of deportation, as do the 50 or so other deserters lined up behind them in Canada's legal system.

Canadian judges are reluctant to stick their necks out to support American war deserters, but Canadian voters should insist that their politicians do the right thing.

The war in Iraq was illegal. It caused unfathomable human suffering, led to more civilian deaths than will ever be known, took the lives of thousands of American soldiers and damaged countless others and their families, and destabilized world peace. American men and women who refused to participate in what millions of people in the world believe was an immoral war should be welcomed as courageous refugees to Canada.

Let them stay. They will make us better Canadians.

This letter ran in the Toronto Star last week.
Most of us procrastinate, but last Friday I did something I've been putting off for more than 30 years. I became a Canadian citizen. That occasion should have been a source of unalloyed pleasure, but it produced distinctly mixed feelings. Here's why.

Just weeks short of 40 years ago, I came to Canada as a resister to a wrongful war in Vietnam. Arriving alone at Toronto's airport, a broke 20-year-old who didn't know a single soul in this country, I stood nervously in line to present myself to Immigration.

The middle-aged official studied my identification, then raised his skeptical eyes to meet mine. "I notice you're of draft age," he said. "Are you here to dodge the draft?" My heart plunged as I pictured myself being hustled aboard a plane for a flight back to the U.S. and, probably, prison. Still, I thought, there was no point denying it.

To my astonishment, a smile broke out on the face of this guardian of Canada's border, and he reached out and shook my hand. "Welcome to Canada, son," he said.

For that welcome, from the first Canadian I'd ever met, I've never stopped being grateful. But as I was raising my hand to take the oath of citizenship last week, I was painfully aware that a new group of resisters to America's latest wrongful war are being denied that principled hospitality that may have saved my life.

Perhaps it's true that Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey do not meet the stringent criteria to be considered refugees. And so what if they joined the military voluntarily? Surely they joined to help defend their country from attack – not to fulfill the ambitions of an incompetent president in an invasion condemned around the world.

In refusing further participation in this murderous fiasco, these two young men exemplify the humanity for which Canada is renowned. The government has the option of permitting them and others like them to stay on compassionate grounds, and it should do so without delay.

Richard van Abbe, Toronto

On Friday night, watching "Breaking Ranks," I saw the Maple Leaf blowing in the wind, and I caught my breath, and tears sprang to my eyes. If Canada fails these brave people, who have risked so much for peace, I may never feel quite the same about my new country.

1 comment:

Cornelia said...

Great newspaper article! I don't get it either why the judges, including the Supreme Court Justices, have been so scared of the Bush club. I think Ms Anne McTavish at least made it possible for the cases to get appealed to higher courts, but I do regret that high courts have let Bush and his Republican accomplices intimidate them. Fortunately, Canadian Parliament majority has done a way better job regarding this issue. Alas, we can't say the same for Harper and Ms Finley yet...
And thanks for that good letter to the editor, too!