WASHINGTON – The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to punish countries that do not promptly return abducted children, upping pressure on an issue that has soured relations with Japan and other allies.
With no dissenting votes, the House voted to create an annual report to assess every country’s history of child abductions and to require President Barack Obama to take action against nations with poor records.
Potential U.S. measures include refusing export licenses for American technology, cutting development assistance and putting off scientific or cultural exchanges. The president would have the right to waive the punishment.
Rep. Chris Smith, the author of the legislation, said it would put the force of the U.S. government behind solving the more than 1,000 cases each year in which U.S. children are taken overseas, generally by a foreign parent after separation from an American partner.
“It is a full-court press to finally elevate this issue, where American children’s human rights are being violated with impunity,” Smith told reporters.
“Right now, it’s like other human rights abuses, maybe on Page 5 as an asterisk” in talks between the U.S. and other countries, he said.
Smith, a Republican, previously led legislation that set up annual reports on human-trafficking and religious freedom, which have often caused discomfort for countries deemed to be lagging behind.
The child abduction legislation still needs approval in the Democratic-led Senate, but Smith voiced confidence at passage as the bill has been revised over several years to ensure support of both parties. The State Department had initially voiced concern at proposals to impose outright economic sanctions over child abductions.
By far, the greatest number of abduction cases takes place in Japan, the only major industrialized nation that has not ratified the 1980 Hague convention, which requires countries to send abducted children back to the countries where they had habitually lived.
Japanese courts virtually never grant custody to foreign parents or fathers.
Paul Toland, who served in the U.S. Navy in Japan, said that his daughter, Erika, was put in the care of her maternal grandmother and that he has no visitation rights after the girl’s mother committed suicide.
“For me, this will be my 11th consecutive Christmas without my daughter,” he told reporters.
Earlier this year, the Diet approved the country’s accession to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.