OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Supreme Court of Canada declined on Thursday to hear activists' claims that Canada should not send refugees back to the United States because it is not a "safe" country for them.
Human rights groups had wanted the high court to declare unconstitutional a U.S.-Canadian agreement that allows Canada to turn back asylum seekers at the border who arrived first in the United States.
The agreement, signed in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, was designed to prevent double claims and "asylum shopping", but human rights groups assert that it endangers refugees.
By refusing to hear the appeal, the Supreme Court let the bilateral agreement stand. As usual, it gave no reasons for its decision.
"This is an unmitigated victory for the rule of law," said a spokesman for Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
"We believe that through international co-operation with the United States, we can handle refugee claims in an efficient manner, reduce abuse of the system and share the responsibility of providing protection to those in need," said spokesman Alykhan Velshi.
A Canadian Federal Court judge shocked both the Canadian and U.S. governments in November 2007 by ruling that the United States was not a safe country for refugees and by declaring the bilateral agreement unconstitutional.
The Federal Court of Appeals overturned that in June, saying Ottawa had done everything it should have done in examining whether the United States was safe for refugees.
The Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council of Churches and a test-case Colombian refugee claimant, "John Doe", had wanted the Supreme Court to reinstate the lower court's decision.
The rights advocates say the United States has tougher standards than Canada, for example requiring refugee claims to be made within one year of arrival, and it does not comply with conventions on refugees and torture.
They cite the case of a Honduran man who tried to make a refugee claim in Canada, but was sent back to the United States, which returned him home, where his wife said he was killed.
"This decision means that refugees will not have their day in court," said Elizabeth McWeeny, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
"The U.S. is not in fact safe for all refugees, so we deeply regret that the Supreme Court has not taken this opportunity to ensure that Canada provides refugees the protection they need from forced return to persecution," she said.
The Canadian government had argued that it was unrealistic to expect identical laws on both sides of the border and that the United States was no Zimbabwe -- that it offered the same sort of protection as Canada.
It had also warned that overturning the agreement could lead to a flood of new refugee claims.
Washington was not formally a party to the Supreme Court of Canada case but U.S. embassy spokeswoman Stacy White defended the U.S. government's policy.
"The United States has a proud record of accepting and protecting refugees, defending human rights, and adhering to our treaty obligations," she said in an e-mailed comment ahead of the Supreme Court decision.
Editing by Peter Galloway