WASHINGTON - Ever since Christopher Savoie was arrested in 2009 after a failed attempt to retrieve his abducted children, Japan has been overwhelmed by international pressure to resolve its ever-increasing number of abduction cases. After years of demarches and public pleas by foreign governments, Japan has finally announced its intention to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
For the 85 other governments that have signed onto to this treaty, it represents a guideline for returning children who have been abducted abroad, and it represents a promise that a foreign court will not simply usurp custody orders and “steal” jurisdiction away from a child’s habitual residence.
While the rest of the world has greeted Japan’s announcement with cautious optimism, left-behind parents who have been victimized by this human rights tragedy have followed the government’s discussions closely, and with growing concern. Watching the parliamentary debates that have been taking place in the Japanese Diet, it is difficult to believe that Japan intends to abide by the Hague treaty in good faith.
To date, most debate within the Japanese Diet has revolved around creating “exceptions” under which Japan would not have to return abducted children. These telling debates are in obvious opposition to the spirit of the Hague treaty in which signatories purport to want to return a child to his or her home following an abduction.
Also disturbing is that Japan government officials are considering a three-year “preparatory” period before ratifying and implementing the Hague treaty, yet the same government officials have claimed for the past 25 years that they have been “studying” the Hague treaty, and the Japanese Diet has been conducting a working group on reforming family law for the past several years. With that much study and preparation, why would the Japanese government need longer than the one year preparatory period that has been more than sufficient for most other countries?
As the National Director for Bring Abducted Children Home (BAC Home), a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness and obtaining the return of children kidnapped to and/or wrongfully retained in Japan, and a left-behind and the only living parent to my daughter, who was abducted to Japan eight years ago, I worked with BAC Home parents to outline our concerns in a press release directed at the Japanese government. The press release makes specific demands of the Japanese government in order to assure that Japan is, in fact, intending to abide by the Hague treaty in good faith and with the basic understanding that it is not in a child’s best interest to be kidnapped in the first place.
First, members of BAC Home are gravely concerned that the Japanese government will not be willing to address the current cases of parental abduction (since the Hague treaty is not retroactive).
Japan owes it to these children and the parents who have suffered for years from this grave injustice to provide a bilateral framework solution to promptly return these abducted children to their habitual residence without delay.
Second, Japan must utilize standard rules of evidence when domestic violence is alleged. Allegations alone are not adequate to prevent the return of a child. Evidence, originating in the child’s country of habitual residence, must be utilized to rise to the Hague treaty’s legal burden of proof standard of “clear and convincing” evidence required in domestic violence allegations.
Currently, abductors in Japan are able to cut off all access to the Left-Behind Parent through unsubstantiated hearsay allegations. Facts and evidence are optional, but not necessary under Japan’s proposed system for Hague Return Denial, and this is unacceptable.
Third, Japan must provide unfettered access to our children. Article 21 of the Hague treaty directs that countries will “remove, as far as possible, all obstacles to the exercise of (parental access) rights.” Japan’s idea of access is restricted to courthouse playrooms and police boxes, roughly equivalent to the access that Felon Criminals in the United States have to their children. Left-behind parents want Japan’s assurance that access to our children will be unfettered and dignified.
Additionally, the Japanese government seems concerned that international child abduction is considered a crime in many other nations, and has vowed to not return abductors who are labeled as criminals or charged with a crime. This is not a determination for Japan to make. Japan cannot simply exonerate its citizens who break the laws of another nation while residing in that nation.
For years the Japanese government has used the subjective phrase “best interest of the child” to justify abductions by its citizens and deny access to left-behind parents. Left-behind parents are unsure how Japan’s signing of the Hague treaty will alter this long-held practice. Typically in Japan,the judge individually defines “best interest” without standards or guidance, using the “best interest” of a child as a “catchall” to justify judicial rulings preventing the abducted child from being returned to the left-behind parent. In one reported case, custody of a child was given to a mother because the “best interest” analysis required that she live in a house with a Japanese garden, which the mother had and the left-behind father did not. If and when Japan finally signs the Hague treaty, other countries will be watching Japanese very closely for decisions rendered based on an illogical bias such as this.
Finally, and most seriously, 20 American children abducted to or wrongfully retained in Japan are unaccounted for since the tsunami and the ongoing nuclear disaster.
We implore the Japanese government to immediately assist in determining the whereabouts of these and all abducted children, and to relieve the left-behind parents of the grief and worry they suffer in not knowing whether their children are alive or dead.
Nothing is more important and deep-seated in this world than a parents love for his or her child,but of equal importance is a society’s responsibility to ensure that its most vulnerable citizens, its children, have the opportunity to know and love both parents. Let’s hope that signing the Hague treaty will move Japan one step closer to fulfilling this responsibility.
U.S. Navy commander Paul Toland is national director of Bring Abducted Children Home and the only living parent of Erika Toland, who was abducted in 2003 and is being wrongfully retained by her grandmother in Japan.