Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Japan & International Child Abduction: An Update

The article below updates Japan’s attempt to handle the issue of international child abduction. It highlights the fact that there is substantial misunderstanding within Japan concerning the entire issue of child custody and how the country’s accession to the Hague Convention would work. There is a very long way to go until Japan returns abducted children.


Japan is struggling to address international child custody issues amid renewed pressure from the United States and other countries to join a convention to deal with the problems that arise when failed international marriages result in children wrongfully being taken to Japan by one parent.

What also makes Japan wary is facing possible criticism that it is harsh in its condemnation of North Korea for abducting Japanese in the past but lags behind in dealing with the so-called ''parental child abduction'' often conducted by its own citizens.

Japan is currently considering joining the convention which provides a procedure for the prompt return of such ''abducted'' children to their habitual country of residence and secures protection of rights of access to parents to their children.

Complaints are growing over cases in which a Japanese parent, often mothers, bring a child home without the consent of the other foreign parent, or regardless of custody determination in other countries, and denies the other parent access to the child.

The problem is not new. In 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper raised the issue with then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Most recently, ambassadors of eight countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Australia, jointly submitted concerns, and Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, also called on Japan to work on the issue during his visit to Tokyo earlier this month.

''The issue is only going to continue to grow by leaps and bounds if you will, simply because Japanese are marrying more and more with foreigners,'' Raymond Baca, consul general at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, said in an interview with Kyodo News.

''This is a multilateral issue. And it affects the world community,'' he also stressed, citing that a total of 81 countries have so far signed the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

As of Wednesday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry has received complaints on 77 cases from the United States, 37 cases each from Britain and Canada, and 35 cases from France, according to a ministry official dealing with the issue.

As part of efforts to address the issue, the ministry set up in December the Division for Issues Related to Child Custody, and has engaged in separate bilateral talks with the United States and France to deal with specific disputes.

The ministry has also held a briefing session for the embassies of countries interested in the issue and plans to hold a closed-door seminar in March in which experts from several countries are expected to gather for discussion on the issue, the official said.

''The issue needs to be considered with haste inside the Foreign Ministry and also inside the government,'' Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said in his e-mail newsletter released Feb. 5.

But he said that acceding to the convention may ''take a little more time'' and also noted the need to take into consideration the differences of legal system between Japan and the United States, or Europe.

''In Japan, basically there is an idea of not letting authorities intervene in family affairs, except for child abuse cases. Therefore, there is no means for coercion. But in Europe and the United States, that may sound strange,'' he said.

There are also differences on parental rights, with Japan's law giving a single parent, often mothers, full custody of children in divorce, while the United States and Europe allow joint custody.

Japan's Civil Code also does not mention about the visitation rights for noncustodial parent and many Japanese mothers are known to refuse the divorced parent to meet the child.

''I understand our two nations' approaches to divorce and child custody are very different, but, as a result, American left behind parents have little or no access to their children once abducted to Japan,'' Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, said in Tokyo.

''The U.S. government...strongly believes that children should grow up with access to both parents,'' he also said, noting that leaving the issue unresolved may raise concerns on the positive nature of U.S.-Japan relations.

Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Kazuo Kodama said that the ministry would ''carefully'' handle the issue so as not to impair the relations with its key security ally, shrugging off the possibility of the issue becoming a diplomatic flashpoint.

But some Foreign Ministry officials are concerned that the discussion starts to have a linkage with the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals.

''When Japan calls for the resolution of (North Korea's) abductions, we may be asked, 'So what is your country doing (in the area of child abduction)?','' a senior ministry official said.

''And if we answer that it is a cultural issue, Japan may be regarded as a selfish country,'' the official said, responding on condition of anonymity.

Indicating Japan's awkward position, several diplomatic sources said that Campbell warned senior Japanese Foreign Ministry officials during his February visit to Japan that its failure to join the convention may have adverse effects on Washington's assistance to Tokyo in trying to resolve the North Korean abduction issue.

The Foreign Ministry official dealing with the child custody issue said Japan basically has no objection to the convention's idea of setting procedures to restore the status quo before the wrongful removal has taken place, without making any custody determination.

But still government officials appear uncertain on whether they can gain full understanding from the public at the moment on the issue of Japan's accession to the treaty.

A Justice Ministry official said that the government has to be able to respond to concerns especially in relation to cases when Japanese women flee from an abusive foreign husband.

While the convention has safeguards to prevent children to return to an abusive environment, the official at the civil affairs bureau said interpretations seem to vary among countries on whether the safeguards apply to cases when the abuse is seen only toward the mother and not to the child.

The Foreign Ministry official dealing with the issue also said that there may be a misunderstanding among the public that a child's return order issued in line with the convention means that the child would have to be there forever.

While saying that the historic change of government in Japan may serve as a momentum for Japan to improve the situation, the official also said, ''To tell the truth, we have yet to come up with a good solution.''

Friday, February 05, 2010

Morocco – Norway International Child Abduction Inter-Governmental Battle

There are reports from Norway of an international re-abduction case involving the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, the Norwegian Embassy in Morocco and Special Forces officers of the Norwegian Navy. The case has led to an international crisis between Morocco and Norway.

Morocco is not a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

Articles from the Norway Post:

The Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri has asked that diplomats at the Norwegian embassy in Rabat be questioned and prosecuted, in connection with their alleged role in the Skah child custody case.

- Norway has broken diplomatic protocol, ethical guidelines and damaged the friendship between our two countries, the Moroccan Foreign Minister said at a press briefing Wednesday. He went on to say that Morocco was far from satisfied with Norway's handling of the case, in which a Norwegian woman smuggled her two children out of Morocco.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre maintains that neither the embassy nor his department were involved in the flight, and that he therefore can see no reason for punishing anyone.


A heated dispute has arisen in Norwegian media, following reports that two special forces officers assisted a Norwegian woman in bringing her two children back to Norway, following a custody dispute with her Moroccan former husband. The two children reportedly escaped from their father's apartment and sought refuge at the Norwegian Embassy in Rabat last July.

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry say they regarded it as a "crisis situation" and allowed the children into the embassy. Three days later an embassy official drove the children to an agreed address where the children were turned over to a person representing the mother. The children and their mother were then smuggled out of Morocco on a small sailing boat.

Defence Minister Grete Faremo confirms that two officers from the Norwegian Navy's special forces were involved in sailing the boat when the mother and children were brought out, but that the two were on vacation at the time. However, Faremo says it is unacceptable for Defence personnel to participate in "such an operation", even on their time off. The opposition in Parliament (Storting) have callled for a full investigation into the case.

The children's mother had for several years sought help from the embassy, and claims that Norwegian officials earlier had not met her appeals to help her ensure enforcement of a Norwegian court order which had granted her custody of the children. There are also reports that embassy personnel and Norway's ambassador to Morocco had been threatened by the children's father.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Child custody fights could hurt US-Japan ties

The U.S. Government is clearly asserting more pressure on Japan to change its ways than ever before. See article below. On Saturday envoys from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and the United States met with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on this issue. They issued a joint statement that they were there to "submit our concerns over the increase of international parental abduction cases involving Japan and affecting our nationals." "Currently the left-behind parents of children abducted to or from Japan have little hope of having their children returned," said the statement. Such parents "encounter great difficulties in obtaining access to their children and exercising their parental rights and responsibilities," it said.

The Japanese Foreign Minister said that, "This is a very serious issue, to which we have to find a solution."

However, if past practice is a precedent, the Foreign Minister's statement means very little. The bureaucrats will take action only if, as and when they feel that they have little or no choice but to do so. We are not at that point yet. Far more pressure must be imposed.

Child custody fights could hurt US-Japan ties
By Associated Press
February 3, 2010

TOKYO - Japan should work to solve problems in international custody cases so that children of broken marriages have access to both parents, a senior US official said yesterday, hinting that the issue could hurt bilateral relations.

Visiting US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said Japan’s position has “raised very real concerns among senior and prominent Americans in Congress, on Capitol Hill, and elsewhere.’’

Japan has not signed an international convention on child abductions, and its domestic family law permits only one parent to have custody of children in cases of divorce, nearly always the mother. That leaves many fathers, including foreigners, unable to see their children in Japan until they are grown up.

There are about 70 cases of American parents who are kept from seeing their children in Japan, and Campbell met with several of them in a group earlier yesterday. He called their situations “heartbreaking.’’

Steve Christie, an American university instructor who lives in Japan and met with Campbell, said he has rarely seen his son the past four years ever since his wife, whom he has divorced, suddenly left with the boy.

“This is our life and blood, this is our offspring, and we’re being denied a chance to see them,’’ said Christie, 50. “It’s not right, it’s immoral, it’s unethical.’’

In some cases, Japanese mothers living overseas have fled to Japan with their children and kept the fathers from having any contact, even if court rulings abroad ordered joint custody.