Canada and military deserters

By DALE McFEATTERS

In a case closely watched on both sides of the border, Canada’s Federal Court this week took up the appeal of Jeremy Hinzman, 27, a U.S. Army deserter who is seeking political asylum.

If Hinzman succeeds, perhaps as many as 200 deserters living secretly in Canada will do likewise, and other unhappy soldiers may then be tempted to follow them north.

But his petition for asylum was rejected last March by Canada’s Immigration Review Board, which found that Hinzman did not meet either of the two broad criteria for refugee status:

– The refugees are unwilling to return to their homeland because of “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a particular social group.”

– Or their return “would subject them to the possibility of torture, risk to life, or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.”

Arguably, none of these applies to Hinzman. He would face a jail sentence, loss of pay and benefits, and the stigma of a dishonorable discharge. And he knew this when he abandoned his 82nd Airborne unit rather than go to Iraq.

He is being represented by a prominent human-rights lawyer, Jeffrey House, who himself fled to Canada in 1969 rather than be drafted. Hinzman came to believe the war was a “criminal enterprise.” House, according to the Canadian press, will argue that his client should be granted asylum because the war is illegal and immoral.

All of this recalls the Vietnam era when some 12,000 U.S. deserters and 20,000 draft dodgers took refuge in Canada. But there is a significant difference between then and now.

Back then, there was a draft; military service was mandatory, and those who didn’t show up for induction were prosecuted. The U.S. military today is all-volunteer. They know going in that they might be called on to fight a war. Hinzman enlisted for the same reasons many do _ to gain a sense of purpose in life and to earn money for college. Another year and he would have been out, and the Army would have made good on its part of the bargain, his college money.

But midway through his tour, he suffered deep misgivings and unsuccessfully applied for conscientious-objector status. In January 2004, he packed up his wife and infant son and drove 17 hours to Canada.

Canada has been admirable and generous _ too generous, according to some Canadians _ in its treatment of refugees. But it would be exploitive of that honorable policy to grant asylum to those who haven’t suffered persecution or abuse, but merely had second thoughts or belated misgivings about a contract they had lawfully entered into.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)

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