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"Don't Get Back on that Plane"

Soldiers: Seek Asylum in Ireland

by HARRY BROWNE

The chain of violence and corruption that connects the United States with Iraq includes an airport in the west of Ireland. For more than two years, as reported previously in Counterpunch, the Irish peace movement has been trying to break the chain. Having failed, so far, to do that, campaigners now hope to turn Shannon Airport into the weakest link.

A group of activists, including several of the ‘Pitstop Ploughshares’ who face trial next month for their ‘disarmament’ of a US Navy plane in 2003, have called for American military war resisters to seek official refuge while their planes refuel and they are let wander through the lounges of this relatively small civilian airport.

Ireland is said to be a neutral country: it is not, in any case, a member of NATO, nor was its inclusion in the Coalition of the Willing ever frankly admitted either by US or Irish government officials. However, its facilities have played a considerable and growing role in the US war and occupation. Last year, 158,549 US troops passed through the airport on 1,502 flights ­ mainly civilian charter aircraft. Those troop numbers were 26 per cent higher than in 2003. In addition, Irish officials granted permission for 753 military aircraft to land, and 816 aircraft carrying munitions.

The invitation for some of these troops effectively to desert comes from members of the Irish parliament and even a former Irish army commandant, Ed Horgan — who made it clear he wouldn’t make such a suggestion lightly. And those making the call realise that it is not abstract rhetoric: it is estimated that more than 5,500 soldiers have left their ‘duties’ in the current wars, including highly publicised cases like the imprisoned Camilio Mejia, the exiled Jeremy Hinzman (seeking refuge in Canada) and Kevin Benderman, seeking conscientious-objector status after 10 years in the army because of what he witnessed on his first tour of duty in Iraq.

Irish and international law on refugees makes it clear that soldiers are not excluded from making asylum applications, which can be made to any Irish police officer (Garda) or immigration official. Soldiers who face being forced to obey "unlawful orders" are explicitly mentioned in the refugee statutes. The Geneva Conventions state that soldiers need not perform duties that offend their political, religious or moral principles.

"American soldiers are being required to commit acts so gratuitously offensive to themselves and their families that they will never be able to speak of them," said activist Michael Birmingham, who has spent much of the last two years in Iraq, as well as meeting soldiers who have returned home to the US.

The activists are working to ensure that the ‘invitation’ to Ireland becomes widely known among US soldiers — and that Irish officials at Shannon Airport perform as the law requires them to do in giving individuals the right to have their asylum claims heard. Any soldiers who do make a claim will find a supportive network of legal and logistical support in Ireland.

Damien Moran, one of the Pitstop Ploughshares, said: "The offer of sanctuary in Ireland is deeply rooted in our traditions of neutrality and hospitality."

HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. He can be contacted at harrybrowne@eircom.net.