Brazil Helps Kidnap American Children

By Bernard Aronson
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs 1989-1993

June 17, 2009

ations distinguish themselves by gestures large and small. In the coming weeks, Brazil will define itself to the United States and to the wider international community by how it treats a 9-year-old boy.

Sean Goldman was born and raised in Red Bank, N.J., to an American father, David Goldman, and his Brazilian-born wife. Five years ago this week, Sean was taken by his mother to Brazil on what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. He never returned.

What should have happened next is clear, since Brazil is a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Under the treaty, one parent cannot flee the legal jurisdiction where the child resides — “his habitual residence” — to shop for a more favorable court venue in another country to contest for custody. Within six weeks of Sean’s abduction, Brazil was obligated under the treaty to return him to the U.S., where custody issues could have been resolved legally.

The U.S., as the treaty requires, has regularly returned abducted Brazilian children. But Brazil has never returned any of the 66 American children abducted from the U.S. to Brazil. The U.S. State Department has repeatedly cited Brazil for violating its treaty obligations. In Latin America, only Honduras boasts a worse record. More than 1,600 American children are caught in similar circumstances world-wide.

In the five years since Sean’s abduction, his mother obtained a Brazilian divorce and remarried into a powerful local family of prominent lawyers. Though she died tragically in childbirth one year ago, her Brazilian family has used its connections to obstruct Sean’s return to his biological father. The case is so egregious that both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised Sean Goldman’s plight with their Brazilian counterparts when they met for the first time earlier this year.

A glimmer of hope emerged last month when a Brazilian federal judge ordered Sean’s immediate return to his father, who had flown to Rio de Janeiro for the ruling. But the return order was stayed by a higher federal court judge, and the case remains mired in the country’s seemingly endless judicial appeals process.

Resolutions calling on Brazil to return Sean at once passed both the House and Senate unanimously earlier this year. Frustrated by the continued delay, members of Congress have now introduced legislation to strip Brazil and other flagrant violators of the Hague Convention of their privileges under the Generalized System of Preferences, which reduces tariffs on exports from developing countries to the U.S.

To avert the coming train wreck in U.S.-Brazil relations, Brazil must demonstrate that it is a nation that honors its treaty obligations — not a country that protects those who abduct American children. The choice it makes will resonate far beyond the Goldman family or the families of the other 65 abducted American children in Brazil.

As the fifth most populous country in the world, Brazil has emerged in recent years as an increasingly respected global leader in economics, energy, peace-keeping and arms control. Brazil is a member of the G-20, a potential host of the 2016 Olympics, and a likely candidate for an enlarged U.N. Security Council. But Brazil cannot expect to enjoy the privileges of international leadership — or U.S. support for these aspirations — if it continues to ignore its Hague Convention responsibilities and lawful claims of American families whose children have been abducted.

It’s long past time to bring Sean Goldman home.

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