David Goldman has been invited to have Christmas with his son in Rio de Janerio. Mr. Goldman is in a rancorous custody fight for his son with the husband of his ex-wife who died in childbirth last year. Maybe, an agreement can be reached on the child’s status simply between the families.
By international law, the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abductions, which Brazil is a party to, the son should have been returned to his father. The Brazilian courts, however, have issued contradictory orders and in the end the boy is prevented from returning to the U.S. and his father.
The issue of parental child abduction is even greater in Asia. Almost no country in Asia has signed The Hague Convention (Hong Kong, Macau, Australia and New Zealand have). Japan, Korea, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines are all safe havens for parents who want to disregard court orders and to continue to pain their former spouses. So it was no surprise that it is a father of a child abducted to Japan, Patrick Braden, who is a leader of the left-behind parents. As Mr. Goldman languished in Brazil waiting to see his son, Mr. Braden spoke with compassion and solidarity on his behalf on the TV news last Friday.
Japan holds the single largest number of abducted American children in Asia. Japan is also the only G-7 country that has not signed The Hague nor has an extradition treaty with the U.S. The Government has been"studying" the issue for a number of years and it is one of the top subjects being fought against by the Japanese Embassy's lobbyists.
The past few weeks have been active for those trying to heighten awareness of the parental child abduction issue. On December 1st, Japan’s Foreign Ministry set up a new division to study and handle international child custody issues. On the same day, the Ministry signed a MOU with France establishing a Consultative Committee on Issues Related to Child Custody to exchange information on cases. The press release was careful to note “The purpose of this Committee is not for the actual resolution of disputes between the involved parties.”
The French seem to have larger expectations. According to the website of French Assemblyman representing French in Asia, they believe that this office will facilitate reunions, mail, and dialogue. They also believe that the Foreign Ministry when it says it will coordinate with the Justice Ministry.
The United States is said to have rejected this approach as the MOU only involves the Foreign Ministry and does not mention the Justice Ministry, which has the jurisdiction over the custody cases. Americans view this MOU and the new MOFA office as just more stalling by Japan. To them, it seems no different than the occasional family reunions with South Korea stage-managed for publicity by the North Korean government.
The timing of the establishment of the child custody office at MOFA was also suspect. It preceded, by a day, the December 2nd Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on “International Child Abduction and Parental Access.” Here, fathers of abducted children and legal experts testified about the law and their experiences with international parental child abduction.
Hague Convention signatory countries such as Brazil and Austria were criticized for their lack of enforcement of custody rulings. Japan received a great deal of criticism for not being a signatory, not recognizing foreign court’s rulings, and eschewing joint custody.
Co-Chairman Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) opened the hearing by pointing out that the State Department did not send a representative to testify and hoped it wasn’t a sign of Department’s disinterest on the topic. Wolf later stated that the fathers should meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then President Barack Obama to discuss the issue and that he would do his best to help set up these meetings.
Navy Commander Paul Toland, whose daughter is kept Japan by her grandmother, stated that he and other families of abducted children tried to meet in Tokyo with visiting Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. Commander Toland was indignant that his request was turned down when he learned that Mr. Campbell had found time to meet with Japanese families of children abducted to North Korea. Toland showed pictures of the meeting. [This is a bit unfair of Toland as he did meet with Campbell in Washington just a few weeks before with other left-behind parents.]
Congressman Wolf responded that “if [Campbell] doesn’t meet up with you in 30 days then he should be fired and he can go work on K Street and for the Japanese government.” Wolf added, “If the President can go to Copenhagen to get the Olympics, I certainly think he could make a trip to these countries [Japan, Austria, Brazil] to help U.S. citizens.”
On December 8th, Congressman Wolf and other members of the Human Rights Commission followed up their belief that the parental child abduction issue should be acknowledged at the highest levels of the U.S. government. They sent letters to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton asking that they “promptly met with these parents to discuss their cases and potential solutions to this endemic problem.” Reported cases of international child abduction, they wrote, have increased 60 percent over the last three years. Interestingly, Japan was the only country mentioned by name in the letters.
Japan dodges appeals for it to sign The Hague by noting that: 1) culturally the Japanese believe that divorce severs all ties and that the mother should have sole custody; and 2) Japan is a safe have for Japanese wives suffering from domestic violence by their foreign husbands.
According to the Asahi Shimbun, Justice Minister Keiko Chiba is cautious about creating a system under which Japanese wives are obliged to return their children to their father's country when they have run into difficulties with their non-Japanese husbands. The Justice Minister said, "I'm concerned about victims of domestic violence. Japan uses a 'sole custody system' in which the custody of children is only given to one parent.”
These are peculiar excuses. For one, not all the left-behind parents are men or even Western. Japanese children are also being abducted to non-Hague signatory countries. Further, the parents fighting for their children have Western court orders granting them joint or sole custody. They would not have received these judgments if the Court felt there was a danger of violence or abuse. And most important, joint custody and access to one’s children is becoming a political issue in Japan. The Japanese people, themselves, want the law changed.
Prime Minister Hatoyama sees Japan as becoming a leader of an East Asian Community. He promotes the idea of yu-ai or fraternity, "Within yu-ai, people respect the freedom and human dignity of others just as they respect their own freedom and human dignity. In other words, yu-ai means not only the independence of people but also their coexistence” he said recently in Singapore.
One step that Japan can make to show its leadership in helping promote freedom and human dignity in Asia is to sign The Hague Convention. Nothing is more fundamental to society than the integrity of the family and safety of its children. By being the first Asian country to sign Japan shows uncommon, solid leadership.