Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Japan/UK Dialogue on Accession to Hague Convention

Yesterday, British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband spoke with his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada regarding Japanese accession to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Miliband quoted Okada as stating,
"I fully understand the seriousness of the issue."

For several years, mounting pressure has been applied on Japanese officials to accede to the Hague Convention.

A recent round of US/Japanese diplomatic talks, have led some parents to criticize both American and Japanese governments for not doing enough to help left-behind parents and internationally abducted children.

It is not just the US that has been making representations; the G8 countries have collectively been applying pressure. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have numerous cases where children abducted to Japan have all but disappeared from the lives of their left-behind parent. In addition, fellow G8 members - the UK, Spain and France - have been raising the issue too.

In the context of international child abduction, the much maligned Hague Convention is still the mechanism of choice, however, Japan has so far failed to accede to the Convention for a number of reasons, mostly cultural and specifically, on the basis that signing the Convention could place Japanese mothers and children in harms way if they were fleeing abusive partners.

Visitation in Japan upon Divorce

In Japan, the notion of shared custody or visitation with a child by the non-resident parent is practically non-existent. One parent, typically the mother, is awarded sole custody and the matter ends there - continuing contact between children and non-resident parents (fathers) is nil to negligible. In many respects, it is the Japanese legal system which is deficient in the inability to recognize the right of a child to continuing contact and involvement with the non-residential parent.

This sharply contrasts with the legal position in many Western countries which, if not perfect in practice, do frequently recognize the bonds of love and support between child and non-residential parent and seek to continue contact between children and fathers after divorce.

The Hague Convention's Cultural Challenge

The issue of domestic violence is a smelly cauldron, and one which the US in particular, does not have a credible leg to stand on. Morally, Japan is right to take its stand with "protecting" Japanese mothers claiming abuse when the US does so in so many cases when the tables are turned - even providing a specific exemption for the two-parent signature law to gain a US passport for children to effect their removal to the US from overseas.

Domestic violence is a challenge no matter whether the Hague Convention is in situ or not.

The issue at hand is the adoption of an international treaty which recognizes the rights of children to both parents by a country which does not have any cultural or legal basis for doing so. In Japan, children go to the mother and father is out of their life until they grow up - this is the practical situation and very close to the legal one.

Imagine the effect of Japanese courts granting visitation rights to "geijin" foreign fathers (and most will be fathers), while Japanese dads can't get a look in. Personally, I don't see that happening in practice, and yet, so many appear to be placing faith in the Hague Convention as a step in resolution of abductions to Japan.

One left-behind parent, Carlos Bermudez with his son, Sage, abducted from the US to Mexico, pointedly quipped:

"You're given a box marked Hague Convention on the side and you open it up to find you have a pea-shooter with which to take on a tank!"

Parents with children internationally abducted to Japan, are in for a very rude awakening when they get to try to use the Hague Convention, as and when Japan accedes to it.

But, there is the rub - I feel sure Japan will accede to it and in doing so, an opportunity will exist to continue to cast some daylight on the murky underbelly of international child abduction and the use of domestic violence allegations as a tool to justify abductions, not by the Japanese, but by the United States. Accession will also mean the US Department of State can shuffle Hague Convention application paperwork and play the waiting game with left-behind parents, with children in Japan, in exactly the same fashion they do so today with parents abducted to any other Hague country.

Japan signing the Hague Convention without a major cultural shift in thinking and behavior is full of challenges and obstacles; but teh Hague Convention is the hope parents with children in Japan will cling to as is the case with the rest of us. Without the US authorities performing a similar acrobatic feat in shifting thinking and attitudes, especially with how they manage Hague Convention cases, my honest view is the entire process is meaningless.

That is not what parents with children in Japan want to hear.

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