Child hostages abroad

EVERYONE knows about the hostages in Beirut. Less well known are the more than 2,300 US citizens who are kidnap victims held against their will in countries around the world. The citizens in question are children - children who have been abducted from their homes in the United States by a noncustodial parent and taken abroad, out of reach of US courts.

Pursuing these cases would seem to be the province of the State Department, whose charge, of course, includes the protection of American citizens abroad. The department has been reluctant to get involved, however, on grounds that international relations are complicated enough without taking up the cases of children in far-flung capitals.

Sorry, but that kind of response isn't good enough: First, the custody of most of these children has been formally adjudicated by a US court. The State Department does not need to make custody decisions or try to get another country's foreign ministry to do so.

Next, most of the children are in nations with which the US has close or good relations. The country with the greatest number of these cases is West Germany, followed, in order, by Mexico, Britain, Italy, and Nigeria. The abducting parents - fathers, in the overwhelming majority but not all of the cases - are typically nationals of the countries to which they flee, or they may simply pick a country whose language they speak.

An international convention that grants jurisdiction in these cases to the court of the country from which, rather than to which, a child has been abducted is one promising development. The only signatories so far have been a few Western countries - including the US, although the State Department insists congressional action is necessary before it can take effect.

This convention, if enforced, would cover most of these international custody battles. Unless more third-world countries sign on, however, the most difficult cases will not be resolved. Many of these countries have not grown into the understanding of women's and children's rights that the West honors, at least in theory, and the results can be heartbreaking for mothers separated from children whose custody is legally theirs.

Statecraft is never easy. Washington certainly has things to learn about consistency in speech and action and about consensus-building. But innocent children should not be caught in the foreign policy machinery that chews on issues like trade and tariffs and the deployment of missiles, and consular officials should be able to pursue a stolen child as vigorously as they do a stolen passport.

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