Political Opinion in the Refugee Context

The five grounds for claiming Convention refugee status on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution are race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group and political opinion.

Political opinion is a broad concept that is not merely limited to belonging to a political party.  Canada (Attorney General) v Ward (1993)  is the leading Supreme Court of Canada case on the scope of political opinion. According to that decision, political opinion includes “any opinion on any matter in which the machinery of state, government, and policy may be engaged.”   The Court stated:

Political opinion as a basis for a well-founded fear of persecution has been defined quite simply as persecution of persons on the ground “that they are alleged or known to hold opinions contrary to or critical of the policies of the government or ruling party”; see … [Atle Grahl-Madsen, The Status of Refugees in International Law (1966)] at p. 220. The persecution stems from the desire to put down any dissent viewed as a threat to the persecutors. Grahl-Madsen’s definition assumes that the persecutor from whom the claimant is fleeing is always the government or ruling party, or at least some party having parallel interests to those of the government. As noted earlier, however, international refugee protection extends to situations where the state is not an accomplice to the persecution, but is unable to protect the claimant. In such cases, it is possible that a claimant may be seen as a threat by a group unrelated, and perhaps even opposed, to the government because of his or her political viewpoint, perceived or real. The more general interpretation of political opinion suggested by Goodwin-Gill, [Guy S. The Refugee in International Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983] at p. 31, i.e., “any opinion on any matter in which the machinery of state, government, and policy may be engaged”, reflects more care in embracing situations of this kind.

Here are some further things to note about political opinion:

  • Individual knowledge of or opposition to corruption may constitute political opinion. (Berrueta v. Canada, 1994).
  • Refusing to participate in corruption can constitute political opinion. (Vassiliev v. Canada, 1997)
  • The meaning of “political opinion” is not confined to partisan opinion or membership in parties and movements and does not refer exclusively to national, political, or municipal state politics (Reynoso v. Canada).
  • Non-membership in a political party is itself irrelevant.  It is the surrounding circumstances that matter. (Armson v. Canada, 1989)
  • The political opinion at issue need not have been expressed outright.  In many cases, the claimant may not be given the opportunity to articulate his or her beliefs, but the beliefs can be perceived by his or her actions. (Canada v. Ward, 1993)
  • The political opinion ascribed to the claimant and for which he or she fears persecution need not necessarily conform to the claimant’s true beliefs. The examination of the circumstances should be approached from the perspective of the persecutor, since that is the perspective that is determinative in inciting the persecution. (Canada v. Ward, 1993)