POINT OF VIEW: Tommy G. Thompson

Japan needs international child support law

The following, originally published in The International Herald Tribune/Asahi Shimbun on Friday, March 26, 2004, is reproduced here with The Asahi Shimbun's permission.

Children with dual nationalities are the truest bridges that exist between our two cultures. They foster understanding far more than professional diplomats or politicians could ever hope. In this 10th anniversary of the International Year of the Family, we should cherish children with dual nationalities as symbols of what unites us as peoples and nations.

Sadly but inevitably, the number of international divorces and separations affecting Japanese families is also on the rise. As is always the case with divorce, it is the bridges - our children - who suffer most.

Globalization means people are moving across international borders much more than in the past. Family law, which has historically been governed by domestic law, increasingly has had to be internationalized to keep up with the changes. Countries are required to cooperate to solve difficult questions affecting families and children, just as they have to cooperate on security and economic issues.

Parental child abduction and the failure to pay child support are two serious problems that are increasingly arising in the international context. These issues are difficult enough when everything happens within the borders of a single country. They become extraordinarily difficult when more than one country is involved. International cooperation is essential if we are to protect families in these situations.

For example, when one parent seeks unlawfully to remove a child from his or her habitual residence, or to deprive the other parent of access to the child, this is child abduction. The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, adopted by 74 countries, is an important tool for those seeking the return of children abducted across international borders, or to exercise their rights of access to see them.

In addition to participating in The Hague abduction convention, the United States has built up a body of supplementary laws and regulations to protect against international child abduction. We have a requirement, for example, that both parents approve of a passport application for minors under the age of 14.

We also have strict laws governing child support, for which the Department of Health and Human Services has primary responsibility. We can deny, for example, passport services to parents who are delinquent in paying child support. These laws have been extremely successful in forcing non-custodial parents to meet court-ordered financial obligations to their offspring.

The United States also participates in a number of bilateral reciprocal child support enforcement agreements, under which the United States will collect child support for a custodial parent residing in a partner country from a U.S. resident who is a non-custodial parent, and the other country will do the same for U.S. custodial parents.

The United States and Japan are both participating in the negotiation of a new multilateral Hague convention on the enforcement of child support obligations.

While we welcome Japan's involvement in this negotiation, we were disappointed to learn that Japan does not expect to become a party to the new convention in the foreseeable future.

Japan is the only G-7 industrialized country that is not a party to The Hague abduction convention.

It does not have a formal two-parent signature requirement for obtaining passports for minors. It has no bilateral child support enforcement agreement with another country, and has no plans to participate in the new multilateral child support convention.

Japanese law enforcement and social service agencies unfortunately seem unable to enforce custody and support orders - even those laid down by their own courts, let alone from another country's courts.

Obviously, each country has its own legal system, which reflects that country's deeply held values. International legal cooperation in family matters cannot and does not require that all countries' legal systems be exactly the same. But just as countries have to be willing to adjust their own laws in order to compete in a global economy and participate in the fight against international terrorism, they also have to ensure that their family laws provide an effective remedy in international abduction and child support cases.

The U.S. government considers the welfare and protection of U.S. citizens overseas, especially children, one of our most important responsibilities. We strongly believe that children best prosper when they have the benefit of the financial and emotional support of both parents and that governments have a responsibility to facilitate this support.

As we celebrate together this 10th anniversary of the International Year of the Family, I urge Japan to take the steps necessary to put in place a legal system under which Japan can cooperate fully with the United States and other countries on international child abduction and the recovery of child support.

The author is secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He contributed this comment to The Asahi Shimbun.