Tuesday, October 20, 2009


QUESTION: Hi. Charlie Reed, Stars and Stripes....One more question, too. Is the Hague Treaty part of the talks that are going to happen – the Hague treaty on international child abduction?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Yes, and we had deliberations about those today. Yes, we did.

QUESTION: Can you give me any indication of the progress? The new government has said that it seems to be an issue that they would support and that treaty seems like something that would move forward with it. Is that what you are hearing as well?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: I would say we were pleased with the initial discussions we had today.

Back in September, when Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was in Japan to meet Japan's new government, the child abduction issue was merely a nuisance. His answer above was hedging at its best. Although the issue was the subject of the first question by Senator James Webb (D-VA) during Campbell's confirmation hearing, the Assistant Secretary had avoided following up on his promise to meet with abductee families.

It is unclear if he was familiar with the March House Resolution 125 or August House bill 3240, which mention Japan prominently. These congressional bills call on countries to sign the Hague and request the State Department to monitor compliance. In May, four ambassadors (U.S., the United Kingdom, France, and Canada) held a press conference after a symposium on Japan's child abduction problem.

There is an active and increasingly organized movement of left-behind parents and grandparents advocating for Japan to sign the Hague Convention and for the State Department to seek some solution for at least some sort of visitation. One of the movement's leaders literally sat behind Campbell at his confirmation hearing and talked with both Campbell and his wife. They have three little girls.

Child custody, however, was a soft issue that only exposed the fragile ties between the two countries. It was up there with the history issues, medical devices, dolphins, and whales. Minor interest groups concerns that complicate the Alliance. They should not be dignified by high level political attention is the conventional wisdom.

But on September 29th that all changed. One American father tried to kidnap his children back and found himself in jail. For the first time, the Japanese press reported on the Hague Convention and growing discontent of left-behind parents. To be sure, it is hard to be sympathetic to the arrested father. He understands Japanese and understands their legal system; he had a mistress; he lured his wife back to the middle of Tennessee to purposely get a U.S. divorce. He used all the resources available to a rich, white, male bully. Attributes, he knew, were useless in a Japanese divorce court.

This messy divorce story is more complex than one paragraph, but the fallout has highlighted a raft of human rights and emotional issues in Japan at a politically uncomfortable time. These include Japan's approach to child custody, childrens' rights, detention, and international law. In all, Japan appears out of sync with the practices and values of other modern industrialized countries. On October 16th, the Ambassadors of Australia, Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States issued a joint statement asking Japan again to sign the Hague.

In the past, it was easy for Japanese to dismiss these complaints as Western assaults on Japanese customs and values. At worse, Japanese expressed resentment at the aggressive Western men who pressed these issues. Yet, Japanese practice is incongruent with many UN-sponsored treaties and conventions. The Hatoyama government now wants to champion the UN and show that it is responsible advocate of international human rights.

All this and time conspire against Dr. Campbell's plans to paper over these many inconvenience political and emotive differences between the U.S. and Japan. In mid-November, he has to ensure that the Obama-Hatoyama summit is a success. With the Alliance under review, the dollar sinking, North Korea hostile, Iran uncooperative, and cows still mad, Campbell has little positive to work with. He only has left the "soft" issues.

Thus, on Wednesday, October 21st, he will finally hold a "town hall" meeting with a number of left-behind American parents. On October 29th, he will be called to testify on the child abduction issue to a hearing before Congressman Bill Delahunt of the House Committee on International Organizations Human Rights and Oversight. All the countries where the Hague does not apply or is not enforced will be reviewed, but the hearing will likely highlight Japan. After all, Japan is the country with the second highest number of child abductions of American children, 101 in 2008. Mexico is first.

The back story to the arrest of the American father will be a spotlight on Japan's legal system, especially its incarceration and interrogation procedures. The pre-sentencing detention of the American father, and other Americans who tried to see their abducted children has not been pretty. This is not an unknown problem. Only now, it is a very public, nasty one.

In October 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee examined Japan’s detention system under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee reiterated concerns raised in 2007 by the Committee Against Torture that the daiyo kangoku (a system of pre-trial detention) did not comply with international standards. Concern was expressed that Japan's system, which allowed for the detention of suspects for 23 days with limited access to a lawyer increased the risk of abusive interrogation methods to obtain confessions. These are the same concerns voiced by the U.S. State Department's annual Human Rights report and Amnesty International's annual report.

Dr. Campbell is an Alliance Manager. To him, those issues of human security, whether they be legal protections or historical injustices, have little place in maintaining a military security alliance. Unfortunately, a shared enemy does not mean there are shared values. And with the Hatoyama Administration and its desire for a more independent foreign policy it is unclear if the U.S. and Japan still share an enemy.

Yet, it may be Japan's new interest in modern values that will save the Summit planning and the Alliance. If the U.S. and Japan can begin to cooperate on contemporary legal practices and empathize over their children and the weaker members of their societies, a stronger, deeper foundation can be built for an alliance that now only depends on a "cornerstone." And maybe, this will be the last time that Dr. Campbell judges something insignificant.

That's karma.

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