Obama administration clashes with Congress on parental abductions

The State Department on Thursday clashed with Congress over the best approach to dealing with the hundreds of children abducted from America by one of their parents every year.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on Human Rights and International Organizations, said at a hearing that he was reintroducing legislation to sanction countries that have shown a “pattern of non-cooperation” in resolving disputes with the United States. Susan Jacobs, the State Department's special adviser for children's issues, vowed to work with Smith on his bill, but warned Congress against taking a heavy-handed approach that she said could strain U.S. relations.

“I think sanctions are a two-edged sword,” Jacobs said. “I think that threatening countries is often an unsuccessful way to get them to cooperate with us, because most of the relationships that we have are very complex and involve many issues.”

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Instead, Jacobs told Smith's panel that the department believes strengthening a 1980 U.N. treaty on international child abduction and getting more countries to sign on is the best option. The United States ratified the convention in 1983.

While the treaty isn't a panacea — five countries were deemed to be non-compliant or to exhibit patterns of non-compliance in this year's State Department report on the treaty — concerns are greatest with nations that haven't signed on. Last year, 634 children were abducted to countries that aren't parties to the treaty, notably Japan, Egypt and India.

Smith urged the State Department to negotiate bilateral agreements, notably with Japan. The U.S. ally has taken steps to join the treaty, but past cases — more than 300 children have been abducted to Japan over the past two decades — would not be covered.

“It's a vehicle that undoubtedly will have positive results,” Smith said. “I see no downside.”

“Well, I'm going to have to disagree with you, sir,” Jacobs answered. “We have three memoranda of understanding, with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. There is no enforcement mechanism and we have had no returns under those memoranda. We believe that the Hague Convention provides the best opportunity for resolving these cases.”

Answering a question from panel member David Cicilline (D-R.I.) about the wisdom of conditioning preferential trade status to cooperation on parental abductions, Jacobs used the example of Japan to explain why she thought that was a bad idea.

“The return of these children is incredibly important to us,” she said, “but I don't think we're going to sanction Japan or threaten to sanction them because that would be detrimental to our bilateral relationship.”

Cicilline then asked about whether it would make sense to condition foreign aid to progress on parental abductions with countries that are heavily reliant on U.S. assistance, such as Egypt.

That could help, Jacobs said, or “it might also mean that they won't cooperate with us at all if they feel that they're being threatened. Egypt is a country in transition and we're mightily trying to influence the direction that it takes.”

She said she's made several trips to Egypt and that the presence of some 30 American children in the country “is one of the issues that we raise constantly” but that withholding aid isn't the best solution. Instead, she called on Congress to ratify the 1996 Hague Convention on the International Protection of Children, which would mandate parties to recognize a court orders from a U.S. judge.

Correction: Amb. Jacobs brought up the example of Japan in her exchange with Rep. Cicilline. An earlier version of this post said otherwise.