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Fellow Members of the German Bundestag,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I bid you a warm welcome to this International Symposium on Child Abduction here at the Federal Foreign Office.
Thank you very much for attending today’s meeting, often entailing a long journey from another continent. Your presence means that we can benefit from your expertise and long years of practical experience. The reason for today’s symposium is, unfortunately, a serious one, often linked to human tragedy. When relationships break up, not only the adults endure great suffering; their children suffer even more. A quarrel over children can unfortunately often end in a nightmare experience for all concerned. Both parents literally fight for their children.
But the main issue here is not the rights of the parents. On the contrary, the focus must always be on the best interests of the child. Children, who from birth have the same rights and duties as adults, need our protection far more than adults, as young children in particular are unable to understand their rights; indeed they are unaware of them. For that reason children must not become pawns in the parents’ conflict. The tragic consequences of separation become even worse when the family conflict takes place across national borders.
National laws on custody often differ, as do national procedures, even if at European level we have come a long way towards harmonizing them. The situation is made even more difficult when one parent acts unilaterally, either taking the child abroad or not returning him or her from an agreed overseas trip. These are described as international child abductions. Today we want to look at this difficult issue. This international symposium, which the Federal Foreign Office has organized in close consultation with the Federal Ministry of Justice (BMJ) and the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), is probably the first of its kind in Germany – and let me state that I think it was about time!
I am confident that we will succeed in initiating a fruitful dialogue on various aspects of this complex theme of child abductions.
Unfortunately, in these highly mobile times, more and more international child abductions are taking place, and legislators, authorities, and society in general are therefore facing new and increasing tasks. In such cases, more than in other cases of injustice, we are racing against time. You all know how quickly a young child develops, how quickly an abducted child adapts to the new, if illegal situation, thus complicating things even further. The longer the abduction lasts, the more difficult it is to return the child. For that particular reason the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” is both a warning and an encouragement to us.
This need for swift action was the rationale behind the conclusion of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (HCCAICA). For Germany and the other 80 signatories, the HCCAICA states that the child must first be immediately returned to his or her country of origin, so as to prevent protracted court cases in the country to which he or she has been abducted – particularly regarding custody. These issues are to be decided upon in the country of origin in the child’s interests. The return of the child may only be refused on very specific grounds, for example potentially grave danger to the child’s welfare. One of the HCCAICA’s major advantages is the direct contact between the “central authorities” in the member countries – for Germany this is the Federal Office of Justice. This is designed to depoliticize and defuse what is a tragic situation. Without the Hague system parents would be left alone to fight the custody case in the courts in the country of abduction.
Another advantage of the HCCAICA is the constantly growing network of “Hague liaison judges” in the member states, which promotes direct contacts among judges with expertise in this field.
However, not all problems have been resolved even within the Convention itself: There are still cases where the member states have yet to implement the Convention in their national legislation so as to comply with the international law obligation to return abducted children quickly.
The interaction between the central authorities and the national bodies and courts can also be improved, and in many cases further training is desirable for the judges involved in abduction cases.
In the final analysis we must constantly ask ourselves whether we honour the spirit of the Convention in our day-to-day work.
In spite of these enduring challenges, which we want to face up to here today, the HCCAICA remains a success story.
The Federal Office of Justice deals with over 400 requests each year, and this number is growing. Over three quarters of these cases are resolved by recognition of the judgments or by the parties agreeing on a solution. For that reason Germany encourages other countries to join the Convention, for example during Mediterranean Union meetings or during the Malta Judicial Conferences on Cross Frontier Family Law Issues, the most recent of which was held in March of this year.
We should not, however, forget that the Convention has up to now mainly been joined by European and American countries which have a similar view of family law. Family court judgments in particular are deeply rooted in that country’s societal and cultural values.
If the Convention is to be of interest to other cultures, we need a mutual understanding of family and society, i.e. a dialogue of cultures.
As long as Islamic or Asian countries do not as yet wish to join the Convention, we must look for alternative solutions.
This is why I expressly welcome the work of the “6 plus 6 group” co chaired by Canada and Pakistan which brings together member countries, including Germany, and Islamic states.
The aim of this group, i.e. to expand the network of liaison judges and increase the use of mediation through independent experts, gives me cause for hope that some of these difficult cases can also be resolved.
Child abduction is not only a question of family and custody law, it is also and will continue to be a crime, one which often also touches on aliens law governing foreigners.
This is why it is important, while always placing priority on the child’s welfare, to get all actors around a table, also within Germany. These actors include family judges, youth welfare officers, public prosecutors and the police, but also those members of society who perform marvellous work, often on a voluntary basis.
To these I once again extend a warm welcome. The Federal Foreign Office knows, from its day-to-day work, how difficult it is to coordinate all partners.
We help when the Convention’s central authorities cannot move forward on their own. Above all, however, we face a challenge in the countries outside the Convention.
Our commitment not only includes the major steps such as talks by ministers and state secretaries with these countries’ ambassadors; it also includes the less spectacular work done in Berlin and the embassies – creating contacts and involving the police, public prosecutors and Youth Welfare Offices.
Avenues are opened for talks and for understanding regarding different cultural values. The staff at the Federal Foreign Office work quietly and meticulously, at home and abroad, with persistence and without undue publicity, as in such cases this would be more damaging than useful. Sometimes they carry out small tasks such as buying Christmas presents for the abducted child.
Over the past few months the Bundestag, too, has dealt with child abductions on several occasions. Alongside the many individual initiatives of my fellow MPs, I recall in particular the debates in the Committees on Foreign Affairs and Human Rights and in the Children’s Commission.
I strongly welcome this commitment, and I especially support the further networking of all national actors to the benefit of the children involved. A central agency as the contact point for all parties would be a good thing.
The Federation and Länder have made significant progress in this respect, for example with the meetings of Federal Foreign Office, Federal Ministry of Justice and Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth representatives, or the initiative by Land Bremen at the Conference of Interior Ministers, which is also taking place today, regarding the pooling of Land responsibilities and the creation of a “central information point”.
The Federal Government takes these challenges seriously. That is why it will not stop learning, taking up on suggestions and improving the interaction of all relevant bodies.
It is guided by the welfare of the children, which must always be at the centre of all our efforts. This is because, as Charles Dickens rightly said, “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice”.