On April 1, Japan will accede to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The government has completed the formal procedures for joining the convention, so the question now is how to ensure a reliable implementation of the convention for the sake of the children and parents concerned.

The treaty, signed by 90 countries around the world since it was concluded in 1980, went into force in 1983. It sets out the rules and procedures with which to comply after one parent requests that his/her children under 16 who were abducted by the other parent be promptly returned to their country of habitual residence.

Japan was the only Group of Eight developed county that had long put off joining the convention. With the increase in international marriages involving Japanese nationals — which hit 34,000 in 2009 according to the welfare ministry — there have been many cases in which a Japanese parent, after breaking up with the foreign spouse, unilaterally takes the children back to Japan and refuses to let the other parent see them. In some cases, Japanese living overseas have reportedly been barred from visiting Japan with their children on the grounds that Japan had not signed the Hague Convention. It is hoped that Japan’s acceptance of the international rules set up by the treaty will dispel the distrust of the Japanese legal system that has built up overseas on this matter.

The convention aims to protect children from the harmful effects of parental abductions. It prioritizes the interests and welfare of children, guarantees the right of separated parents to contact their children, and requires governments of the signatory countries to help separated parents visit and interact with their children.

As for locating abducted children or trying to resolve the case through mediation, a separated parent may seek help from government authorities of either his/her home country or from the country to which the children have been taken. If these efforts fail, the matter will be handed over to the courts. In Japan, such cases will be placed in the hands of family courts in Tokyo and Osaka, which may also mediate the case if both parents agree.

If a separated parent requests help within a year after his/her children have been abducted, the court in principle is supposed to order their prompt return. If a request for help is filed more than a year after abduction, the court will not necessarily order the return of the children if they are deemed to have grown accustomed to their new living environment.

In cases where abuse or domestic violence by a claimant (separated parent) is feared, the return of the children may be denied if the court determines that they could be harmed.

The court may impose financial penalties if a parent refuses to carry out its order. If the parent continues to defy the order, the court may proceed with the enforcement phase — a court official responsible for executing the order and the separated parent will visit the other parent to have the children handed over.

Domestic laws enacted for implementing the Hague Convention do not call for direct enforcement — which seems appropriate in view of the need to protect the children in question from harm.

A careful implementation of the rules will be imperative in order to uphold the best interests of children and to prevent relations between the father and the mother, and between the parents and the children, from worsening.

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