Plan to sign Hague Convention welcome but children’s best interests should come first


Source: The Mainichi Daily News
Japan’s new policy of signing the Hague Convention that stipulates the treatment of children from failed international marriages in custody disputes has been approved by Cabinet ministers, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan planning to announce the decision at a G8 Summit set to take place in France on May 26 and 27.

Officially called the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction or the Hague Abduction Convention, the treaty went into effect in 1983, and counts 84 countries, primarily in the West, as its signatories.

According to the Hague Convention, if a child is removed from their country of habitual residence and a parent petitions for the child’s return to that country, the government of the country to where the child has been taken has the responsibility of cooperating with the child’s return and in negotiations for talks between the respective parents’ parties.

Japan has been facing increasing pressure from Western nations to sign the treaty because of a significant number of cases in which Japanese mothers removed their children from other countries and returned to Japan. The Japanese Foreign Ministry has set up opportunities for periodic consultation with parties from both the U.S. and France — citizens of which Japan nationals have shown to have a great number of custody disputes — and have consulted on a total of 130 individual cross-border custody cases.

In some cases, bringing a child back to Japan without consent from the other parent has resulted in parents facing charges of abduction. That many such parents claim to be victims of domestic violence complicates these cases even further, and such allegations of abuse make the argument that joining the convention raises concerns for the protection of Japanese citizens and goes against the child’s interests understandable.

Meanwhile, Japanese partners whose children have been removed from Japan have pushed for Japan to sign the treaty, with hopes that it would help resolve their own custody disputes.

The Hague Convention includes special exemptions, including one that states that a child does not have to be returned to their country of habitual residence in cases where doing so would pose a great risk of physical or emotional pain for them. This exemption is key.

According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, of the approximately 800 cases of child custody suits around the world in which a parent is seeking the child’s return, the abovementioned exemption has been permitted in 30 percent of cases — ruling that the children did not have to be returned.

These special cases include those in which there remain the chances of a mother becoming a victim of domestic violence if she and her child were to return to their country of habitual residence; or if the child were to return on their own but would suffer if separated from the mother; or in cases in which the child cannot be expected to receive sufficient care upon return. From these cases, it is apparent that courts of various countries around the world are taking a relatively flexible approach to the convention.

Signing the convention and searching for solutions based on internationally-recognized rules is an unavoidable path for Japan. Yet, we must protect our citizens based on the actual nature of each case in a way that adheres with the treaty.

Whether or not a child brought to Japan should be returned to their previous country of residence will be decided by Japanese courts based on the law. The government is set to add a provision to its Hague-Convention bill indicating that in cases that involve allegations of child abuse or of domestic violence by one partner against another, the child can be stopped from being returned to their country of habitual residence.

One of the major factors at the base of cross-border custody disputes is the difference in how custody is perceived. Joint custody is common in many of the convention’s signatory nations, with children often going back and forth between their divorced parents. In Japan, however, sole custody is more common, and is often granted to the mother.

As the number of international marriages continues to rise, we must think about what really constitutes our children’s best interests.

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