The war criminals among us

Montreal Gazette | Monday, September 23, 2002 | Editorial

Immigration Minister Denis Coderre has asked his officials to review Canada's policy on the deportation of now-elderly Nazi war criminals. Perhaps they could just be stripped of citizenship but not deported, he suggests. Mr. Coderre is, in effect, admitting that costly and time-consuming judicial appeals have made current policy ineffective. He's right, but the problem doesn't stop with old Nazis alone. Sadly, the postwar world has generated a wide variety of war criminals and suspects, and a number of them have fetched up in Canada. We'd like to see a comprehensive rethinking of policy.

Canada's efforts to prosecute post-war immigrant Nazi war criminals have rarely been successful, and when they have, it has not always been for the best of legal reasons. Between 1979 and 1985, there was only one real attempt to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice, the 1983 extradition to West Germany of Albert Helmut Rauca, who died in prison before his trial.

In 1987, the Criminal Code was amended to allow for criminal prosecution in Canada of war crimes committed elsewhere. The government then investigated 1,500 suspects, including 883 identified by the late Justice Jules Deschênes in a 1986 report on Nazis among us. These numbers suggested clearly that there was work to be done.

Prosecutorial enthusiasm waned, however, after a 1994 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that allowed for a defence that the accused was just following orders. Ottawa then began trying to strip suspects of citizenship, for lying about their wartime activities, as a first step toward deportation. The first "denaturalization" case, of Dutch Nazi collaborator Jacob Luitjens, a B.C. resident, was successful and uncontroversial.

The same could not be said, however, about last year's case of Helmut Oberlander of Waterloo, Ont. He lost his Canadian citizenship even though Federal Court Justice Andrew MacKay ruled there was no evidence he had participated in war crimes.

Today, Canada is alleged to be home to war criminals from a variety of countries. The country's track record in dealing with modern-day suspects is no better than its efforts with ones from the Nazi era. Take Quebec resident Leon Mugesera. In 1992, Mr. Mugesera, a member of Rwanda's ruling elite, gave the following advice to a fellow Hutu: "Understand that he whose throat you've not yet cut is he who will cut yours." Directly following those remarks, hundreds of Tutsis were killed.

In 2000, eight years after Mr. Mugesera and his family settled in Canada, a Federal Court judge ruled there was no proof his incendiary language was linked to killings.

All in all, then, it's certainly time for a comprehensive new Canadian policy. For one thing, we could look for ways to use the International Criminal Court that came into being this July in The Hague. And the international community should consider a central registry of war-crime suspects.

Domestically, we need a more effective immigration screening process. Such a process might have kept Mr. Mugesera, for example, out of the country in the first place.

Ottawa also needs to come up with a faster but legally valid process for these cases. For a judge to conclude that someone lied, as in the case of Mr. Oberlander, without any proof to back up that conclusion, is hardly a good precedent.

The crimes are too awful to be ignored. But the practical aspects are difficult. This issue needs more work.

© Copyright 2002 Montreal Gazette