In an unusual move that has raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles as well as in South Block, the U.S. ambassador to India Ken Juster recently wrote to different envoys based here to urge India to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Sources said Juster wrote an email to envoys of the countries that are party to the Hague Abduction Convention, asking them in turn to write to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to push the case for India to join the multilateral treaty.
Juster, in fact, even asked the envoys to send in their responses in two weeks time. It prompted many among the envoys to write to their foreign ministries back home asking them what they should do in response to Juster’s request. The Convention ostensibly provides an expeditious method to return a child internationally abducted by a parent from one member country to another.
This lobbying by Washington to build pressure on New Delhi has not gone down well with the Indian government. “That India will sign this Convention is out of the question,” a senior government official told SNI. The official also said, “We don’t understand why the U.S. wants us to accede to the Convention when we have already explained our reasons for not doing so.”
There was no response from the U.S. Embassy to queries sent by SNI over 10 days ago asking why had Juster urged the envoys to write to Swaraj and why the U.S. was pushing India to sign the Convention despite New Delhi’s reservations about it. The story will be updated as and when the U.S. Embassy responds.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has sought to build pressure on India to sign this 1980 treaty which “seeks to protect children from the harmful effects of abduction and retention across international boundaries by providing a procedure to bring about their prompt return”.
U.S. efforts have, in fact, been relentless. Apart from writing to New Delhi-based envoys, Juster is earlier learnt to have also met Union Minister for Women and Child Development (WCD) Maneka Gandhi no less than three times to press Washington’s case for India to sign the Convention. His deputy, MaryKay Loss Carlson, too, has met the minister twice, prompting an official to remark, “They’re literally coercing the ministry.”
Under the Hague Abduction Convention, signatory countries are required to send back the runaway parent and child to what is described as the child’s place of “habitual residence”.
India, on its part, has made it clear to the U.S. more than once that it will not be party to a treaty which the government feels is detrimental to the interests of Indian women fleeing bad marriages abroad. A large number of such women do, in fact, flee the U.S. along with their children. “We want to protect the interests of such women, who are often declared proclaimed offenders by U.S. courts, by not signing this Convention,” said an official.
“Often, a case of kidnapping is registered against such women by their husbands in the U.S. courts, whereas the Indian view is that a couple is the co-custodian of a child,” the official added.
Further, these women sometimes also find themselves facing the heat from the local police in India, even though U.S. court orders have no legal relevance in India.
For India, the issue of dealing with child ‘abductions’ as of now has been settled with the WCD ministry putting in place a mechanism to deal with such cases. It has led to the constitution of an inter-ministerial nodal agency to deal with such cases, with officials from the home, external affairs and WCD ministries.
Moreover, the National Commission for Women (NCW) does a background check in cases of marital discord involving women who have fled abusive marriages abroad. In instances where couples are fighting over a child’s custody, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) looks into the matter, said an official.
Sources told SNI that as far as India is concerned, the Hague Abduction Convention’s requirements have been fulfilled with the setting up of this mechanism. Such a mechanism was also suggested by an expert panel headed by Justice Rajesh Bindal, then a judge with the Punjab and Haryana high court, which submitted its report to the government in April 2018.
It is, however, noteworthy that the Law Commission of India in its reports has been in favour of India acceding to the Hague Convention.