When international marriages fall apart, how should cross-border disputes over child custody be handled?
The Japanese government is in the process of formulating legislation in preparation for joining the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which sets international rules for settling such disputes.
If Japan becomes a signatory to the convention, perhaps as soon as next year, it should be lauded as a step forward. However, in drawing up the legislation, the government must take care to ensure the rights of Japanese people are not being unilaterally compromised.
The treaty bans a parent from taking overseas a child aged less than 16 without the other parent’s permission after their marriage fails.
If a parent demands the return of a child taken without permission from their country of residence, signatory countries are obliged in principle to help resolve the issue.
This is based on the thinking that it is desirable to settle custody disputes in courts in the country of original residence. More than 80 nations have signed the convention. The United States and European countries have urged Japan to join.
About 100 cases have been reported in the United States in which divorced Japanese spouses returned to their homeland with their children. Because Japan is not a signatory to the convention, the foreign parents find it difficult to see their children, let alone take them back to their own country.
Because of this, U.S. and European judicial authorities ban divorced Japanese parents from taking their children home. Japanese mothers who return home with their kids without the permission of their former husbands are often regarded as “abductors” in these countries.
This problem goes both ways: If children with a Japanese parent are taken overseas without permission, the Japanese parent cannot expect to get any help from the country of their former husband or wife.
If Japan joins the treaty, these disputes will be settled by the two countries concerned based on international rules.
The treaty stipulates nations can refuse to return children if they have been physically or mentally abused, and in some other circumstances. But it makes no mention of domestic violence between spouses.
Japan had long resisted joining the pact because many Japanese mothers had returned home with their children after being violently abused by their former foreign husbands. These mothers have strong concerns about allowing their children to return to such an environment.
The procedure to decide whether to return a child or children starts at a court in the country where they reside. The government is considering incorporating into a related bill the right to refuse a request to return a child if there are fears they could become victims of domestic violence. This is a sensible move.
After signing the treaty, the foreign ministry will be responsible for specifying the whereabouts of children brought to Japan and helping with court trial procedures. This will involve domestic administrative work the ministry is not accustomed to doing. Cooperation among government organs to smooth the process will be indispensable.
Many Japanese mothers feel anxious that trials over custodial rights will be held at a court in their child’s original country of residence. Japanese diplomatic missions abroad will need to introduce them to local lawyers and provide other support.
(The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15)