Written by Mayela Celis – The comments below are based on the author’s doctoral thesis entitled “The Child Abduction Convention – four decades of evolutive interpretation” at UNED
As mentioned in a previous post, after many years in the making, the Guide to Good Practice on the grave-risk exception (Article 13(1)(b)) under the Child Abduction Convention (grave-risk exception Guide or Guide) has been published. Please refer to our previous posts here and here. This Guide to Good Practice deals with a very controversial topic indeed. The finalisation and approval of this Guide is without a doubt a milestone and thus, this Guide will be of great benefit to users.
For ease of reference, I include the relevant provision dealt with in the Guide. Article 13(1)(b) of the Child Abduction Convention sets out the following: “Notwithstanding the provisions of the preceding Article, the judicial or administrative authority of the requested State is not bound to order the return of the child if the person, institution or other body which opposes its return establishes that – […] b) there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation. […]” (our emphasis).
The comments on the grave-risk exception Guide will be divided into two posts. In the present post, I will analyse the Guide exclusively through the lens of human rights. In the second post, I will comment on some specific legal issues of the Guide but will also touch upon on some aspects of human rights law. These posts reflect only my personal opinion. Given the controversial nature of this topic, there might be other different and valid opinions out there so please bear that in mind.
At the outset, it should be noted that this Guide is only advisory in nature and thus nothing in the Guide may be construed as binding upon Contracting Parties to the 1980 Convention (and any other HCCH Convention) and their courts (paras 7 and 8 of the Guide) Therefore, courts have enough leeway to supplement it and take on board what they see fit.
Human rights law is gaining importance every day, also in private international law cases. However, apart from some fleeting references to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (pp. 16 and 56), there are no references to human rights case law in the Guide. Indeed, the increasing number of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is not mentioned in the Guide, even though dozens of these judgments have dealt with the grave-risk exception (Art. 13(1)(b)) of the Child Abduction Convention); thus there appears to be an “elephant in the room”. We will try to respond in this post to the following questions: what has been the contribution of the ECtHR on this topic and what are the possible consequences of the absence of references to human rights case law in the Guide.
In this regard, I refer readers to our previous post regarding the interaction of human rights and the Child Abduction Convention here and my article entitled: The controversial role of the ECtHR in the interpretation of the Hague Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, with special reference to Neulinger and Shuruk v. Switzerland and X v. Latvia (in Spanish only but with abstracts in English and Portuguese in the Anuario Colombiano de Derecho Internacional). To view it, click on “Ver artículo – descargar artículo”, currently pre-print version, published online in March 2020.
Before going into the substance of this post, it is perhaps important to clarify why the case law of the ECtHR in child abduction matters is of such great importance in Europe and beyond, perhaps for the benefit of our non-European readers. First, in addition to being binding upon 47 States party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which represent about half of the total number of Contracting Parties to the Child Abduction Convention (45%), the case law of the ECtHR not only applies to child abduction cases between European States. It will also apply, for example, if the requested State in child abduction proceedings is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the requesting State is not. Indeed, the geographical location of the requesting State and whether it is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights are not relevant. See for example, Neulinger and Shuruk v. Switzerland (Application No. 41615/07), Grand Chamber, where the requesting State was Israel, and X v. Latvia (Application No. 27853/09), Grand Chamber, where the requesting State was Australia, both of which are not a party to the European Convention. Secondly, not only European citizens can launch proceedings before the ECtHR. All of this is nicely summarised in Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which sets out that “The High Contracting Parties shall secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of this Convention” (our emphasis).
In X v. Latvia, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR has established a legal standard in the handling of child abduction cases where the 13(1)(b) exception has been raised (and indeed other exceptions of the Child Abduction Convention such as Articles 12, 13(1)(a), 13(2) and 20), which is the following:
“106. The Court [ECtHR] considers that a harmonious interpretation of the European Convention and the Hague Convention (see paragraph 94 above) can be achieved provided that the following two conditions are observed. Firstly, the factors capable of constituting an exception to the child’s immediate return in application of Articles 12, 13 and 20 of the Hague Convention, particularly where they are raised by one of the parties to the proceedings, must genuinely be taken into account by the requested court. That court must then make a decision that is sufficiently reasoned on this point, in order to enable the Court to verify that those questions have been effectively examined. Secondly, these factors must be evaluated in the light of Article 8 of the Convention (see Neulinger and Shuruk, cited above, § 133).” (our empahsis)
“118. As to the need to comply with the short time-limits laid down by the Hague Convention and referred to by the Riga Regional Court in its reasoning (see paragraph 25 above), the Court reiterates that while Article 11 of the Hague Convention does indeed provide that the judicial authorities must act expeditiously, this does not exonerate them from the duty to undertake an effective examination of allegations made by a party on the basis of one of the exceptions expressly provided for, namely Article 13 (b) in this case.” (our emphasis)
In addition, the ECtHR indicates that domestic courts must conduct “meaningful checks” to determine whether a grave risk exists (paragraph 116 of X v. Latvia), and to do so a court may obtain evidence on its own motion if for example, this is allowed under its internal law.
Importantly, this case also underlines the need to secure “tangible” measures of protection for the return of the child (paragraph 108 of X v. Latvia).
Moreover, there are at least two issues in the Guide that could have benefited from a human rights analysis, namely the incarceration of (mainly) the abducting mother upon returning the child to the State of habitual residence and the separation of siblings.
With regard to the first issue, it should be noted that the fact that the mother will be incarcerated upon returning the child to the State of habitual residence could have serious consequences for the child. The Guide has correctly explained the different ways in which such an outcome could be avoided. However, the Guide concludes with the following: “The fact that the charges or the warrant cannot be withdrawn is generally not sufficient to engage the grave risk exception” (paragraph 67).
In my view, where objective reasons have been raised by the mother to refuse to return to the State of habitual residence, such as incarceration, there should be a human rights analysis in the light of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. While there might be some cases where incarceration may not be sufficient to refuse a return, there might be other cases where this would place the taking parent and the child in grave risk of harm or intolerable situation. By way of example, objective reasons for not returning could include a long incarceration or a disproportionate sanction, the fact the other parent cannot take care of the child upon the incarceration of the other parent, the inability to contest custody while imprisoned, etc. According to the ECtHR, an analysis should be undertaken as to whether these actions are necessary in a “democratic society”. Accordingly, the decision of the mother not to return based on a whim should not be considered seriously. See, for example, the ECtHR cases, Neuliger and Shuruk v. Switzerland (Application No. 41615/07), Grand Chamber (as clarified by X v. Latvia (Application No. 27853/09), Grand Chamber)), and B. c. Belgique (Requête No. 4320/11). Arresting and handcuffing the mother at the airport has undoubtedly a tremendous impact on children; so all efforts should be geared via judicial co-operation and direct judicial communications to make sure that charges are dropped as mentioned in the Guide (first part of paragraph 67 of the Guide).
As regards the second scenario, it is important to note that the separation of siblings when one of them has successfully objected to being return under Article 13(2) of the Child Abduction Convention may inflict harm on the children and may be difficult to enforce. The Guide noted that every child should be considered individually and concluded that “Consequently, the separation of the siblings resulting from the non-return of one child (regardless of the legal basis for the non-return) does not usually result in a grave risk determination for the other child” (paragraph 74).
According to article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the views of the child should be given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. By ordering the return of usually the younger sibling(s) and forcing the mother to make a choice between returning with one child and staying with the child who objected, a judge could not be giving enough weight to the views of the child objecting to being returned. This is especially the case when we are dealing with full siblings and all are subject to return proceedings. In my view, and given that the reason for not returning are the views, in particular, of the older child, this should be factored in when the judge exercises his or her discretion. See, for example, the ECtHR case, M.K. c. Grèce (Requête n° 51312/16). Obviously, if the separation of siblings is due to the action of the mother by not wanting to return, then a separation of the siblings would most likely not be a ground for refusing the return.
The underlying basis of the above is that the Child Abduction Convention is for the protection of children and not to vindicate the position of adults who are immersed in a legal battle or to merely sanction the abductor.
The standard in X v. Latvia should be kept in mind when dealing with international child abduction cases. Given that the grave-risk exception Guide is silent on this, practitioners would need to supplement the Guide with relevant literature and case law on human rights if they are dealing with a case in Europe. Practitioners outside Europe having a child abduction case which is being resolved in Europe may need to do the same in order to know what their possibilities of success and options are.
In this day and age, and as mentioned by the honorable Eduardo Vio Grossi, judge of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in a recent virtual forum (“Challenges to Inter-American Law”), the focus should not only be on sanctioning States for violations of human rights but we should assist States in not getting sanctioned by providing the necessary guidance and if possible, paving the way.