Will Brazil Do the Right Thing?

June 19, 2009

he title of world’s greatest dad this year should go to a mild-mannered New Jersey man – David Goldman – whose love, courage, kindness and amazing tenacity touch the heart of everyone he has met or who has heard of his long struggle to rescue his son from a child kidnapper in Brazil. This will be the fifth year the father has been separated from his son.

Despite some recent encouraging signs in the Brazilian federal courts, the sad fact is that in Rio de Janeiro, a man who is not 9-year-old Sean Goldman’s father continues to retain Mr. Goldman’s son illegally. The Goldman child abduction case begs an immediate, simple and durable remedy: Bring Sean home to his father and to his real home in New Jersey. End the kidnapping without excuse or further delay.

Earlier this month, Mr. Goldman traveled to Brazil for the 12th time. He went back to the Brazilian supreme court, which he and I visited together in February, trying to secure justice that a bevy of Brazilian lower courts seemed either incapable or incompetent to render.

With a strongly worded opinion by a federal court judge just days ago that ordered Sean to be reunited with his dad, the end of the nightmare may be in sight. Legal appeals loom, however, that may shortcircuit justice once again.

Five years ago this week, Mr. Goldman’s son, then 4, was abducted by his mother to Brazil. For five years, David has sought relief in the Brazilian courts, and with the aid of an extraordinarily talented legal team, he has left no stone unturned in trying to get his son back. The U.S. Embassy in Brazil – especially the consular general and her team – have fought valiantly for David and Sean. Yet despite all this and repeated trips to Brazil, David was not even allowed to have visitation for more than 4 1/2 years – more than half of Sean’s young life. I was there when he finally got to see his son. It was moving beyond words, and the bond of love between the two was strong and obvious.

Adding further insult to injury in this kidnapping case, since the death of Sean’s mother in 2008, Sean has been held illegally by her second husband, Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, a wealthy and well-connected lawyer whom she married in 2007. Mr. Lins e Silva refuses to return Sean to his father but, heedless of the damage he does to Sean, endlessly delays and obstructs the judicial process.

We must be frank about the situation in Brazil. Generally speaking, the Brazilian judicial system thus far has enabled international child abduction by Brazilian citizens. This is no exaggeration. I invite anyone who is interested to read the State Department’s April Report on Compliance with the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction, which can be viewed at http://travel.state.gov/pdf/2009HagueAbductionConventionComplianceReport.pdf.

The report documents in detail what it describes as Brazil’s “patterns of noncompliance” as well as that of other countries. Brazil is one of the worst violators of the treaty and, among the 68 signatories of the convention, was singled out for its abuses.

Brazilian courts, the report notes, have a disturbing pattern of legitimizing abductions by claiming the abducted child has become “adapted to Brazilian culture.” In other words, for many of Brazil’s courts, if you abduct a child and manage to keep him or her in Brazil long enough, in defiance of the Hague Convention, he or she becomes yours.

In Sean’s case, the second husband, Mr. Lins de Silva, has used this cynical kidnapper’s ploy as an excuse to continue to hold Sean from his real father, claiming that Sean is more settled in Brazil. Besides his dad, Sean has family and friends in New Jersey, where he was born. His empty bedroom in Tinton Falls, N.J., awaits him. For five years, Mr. Goldman has left it untouched for his homecoming.

In this quintessential David-verses-Goliath battle, the administration of Brazilian President Lula da Silva has systematically failed to comply with either the spirit or letter of the Hague child-abduction treaty.

For our part, both the U.S. Congress and the executive branch need to do more. The passage of H.R. 125 by the House on March 11 sent a strong message that we will no longer ignore child kidnapping. Ditto for the Senate.

Now the Foreign Affairs Committee should hold hearings on the irreparable harm to thousands of children and left-behind parents caused by an ever-worsening global trend of child kidnappings. The State Department says there were more than 1,083 new cases involving 1,615 kidnapped children in 2008 alone. We need to comprehensively probe Hague Convention compliance issues – or, to be more accurate, the lack of compliance. Equally important, countries such as Japan that have not ratified the treaty and have become havens for child kidnappers need to be examined as well.

Congress also should consider my bill H.R. 2702, which would suspend special trade privileges Brazil enjoys on export goods worth $2.7 billion to the United States. Our country has extended these duty-free benefits to help Brazil economically. But if Brazil does not live up to its treaty obligations – at least 65 American children remain abducted in Brazil – something more than diplomatic chatter should underscore our resolve.

From my work as author of numerous human rights laws, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, I have learned that offending countries are far likelier to take human rights abuse seriously if a predictable, hefty penalty awaits indifference or noncompliance. Moral suasion occasionally succeeds but far too often is ignored.

The bottom line is that the Lula government and some other governments are ignoring their commitments under the Hague Convention. Many American families are being severely hurt, and the State Department and Congress need to urgently turn our attention to the matter, and address it head-on.

David is truly a remarkable dad. But his heroic efforts go beyond himself and Sean. Someday soon, when after more than five years of arduous struggle, he gets his son back from a child kidnapper, he will have shed light on the pain, trials and hopes of thousands of left-behind parents and their daughters and sons.

Mr. Goldman has made visible that which had largely been invisible. His persistence has mobilized his family, neighbors, the media, Congress and the American people to confront child abductions seriously.

I hope the Brazilian government will resolve this international problem, live up to its duties under international law and restore its reputation as a nation of law and order. All the world watches.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, New Jersey Republican, is in his 29th year in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. http://chrissmith.house.gov/Biography/

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