Committee on Enforced Disappearances Marks First Anniversary of the Joint Statement on Illegal Intercountry Adoptions
The Committee on Enforced Disappearances today co-hosted an event at the Palais des Nations in Geneva to mark the first anniversary of the joint statement on illegal intercountry adoptions. Speakers discussed the content and objectives of the joint statement, highlighted its importance for victims and identified future actions to promote its implementation.
Olivier de Frouville, Chair of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said that the purpose of the joint event was to consider how to implement the joint statement and how to ensure that victims’ rights were protected. Mr. de Frouville stressed the importance of listening to the voices of victims, who went through great personal stress to tell their stories.
Mr. de Freuville said there was a rising tide of people adopted during the 1970s and later who were now looking for their relatives. States needed to respect human rights conventions and instruments, and the joint statement constituted a practical guide in that regard. The treaty body system offered several procedures that could be triggered to help persuade States to implement effective measures. In closing, Mr. de Freuville said the practice of illegal intercountry adoptions was a multilateral and a societal issue, and needed to be treated accordingly.
The joint event was co-hosted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child; the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Guarantees of Non-recurrence; the Special Rapporteur on the Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children including child prostitution, child pornography, and other child sexual abuse material; the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children; and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
During the session, two panel discussions were held, the first presenting testimonies of victims and States’ experiences, and the second discussing the relevance of the joint statement. In addition to the co-hosts, representatives of the Governments of France and Ukraine, civil society organisations and persons affected by illegal intercountry adoptions participated in the panels.
Summaries of the public meetings of the Committee can be found here, while webcasts of the public meetings can be found here. The programme of work of the Committee’s twenty-fifth session and other documents related to the session can be found here.
The Committee will next meet in public on Tuesday, 26 September at 3 p.m. to hold an informal meeting with national human rights institutions.
OLIVIER DE FROUVILLE, Chair, Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said that the co-hosts were proud to have adopted the joint statement in such a speedy fashion. Illegal intercountry adoptions constituted multiple offences against children. They could occasionally correlate with other crimes, such as war crimes and genocide. States were obliged to recognise the rights of victims to identity and reparations; to find biological parents; to investigate these crimes, prosecute them and identify perpetrators; and to take steps to prevent illegal adoptions from occurring. States needed to respect the Hague Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The purpose of the joint event was to consider how to implement the joint statement, how to ensure that victims’ rights were protected. Mr. de Frouville stressed the importance of listening to the voices of victims, who went through great personal stress to tell their stories. Their views, as well as those of States, would be presented in the event.
First Panel on Illegal Intercountry Adoptions: Testimonies of Victims and States’ Experiences
JOHANNA LAMBOLEY, member of Réseau des Adopté-es à l’International en France and victim of an illegal intercountry adoption, said that she was adopted at the age of five and a half by a family in France. She had lived with her mother in prison in Chile until she was four years old, where her mother served a sentence for committing homicide in the context of domestic abuse. The end of her mother’s sentence had never been registered administratively in Chile, which prevented her from enjoying civil rights such as voting or traveling abroad. Later, her mother met a social worker, who offered to put her child, Ms. Lamboley, in a boarding school during the week so that she could work and pick the child up on weekends. In 1986, her mother signed a blank document which, she was told, would be her agreement for the care and schooling at the boarding school. However, this became an act of abandonment that would recount in a very crude way her incarceration and present her as having committed fratricide and presenting her as a prostitute. Ms. Lamboley said she did not see her mother again for 34 years. After adulthood, she discovered her Chilean identity papers and that she had a double identity, both in Chile and France. Today, Ms. Lamboley helped other people adopted from Chile in France in finding their biological families. She discovered new cases every day, which involved falsified stories about mothers, changes of identity, double identity and trafficking. The same networks of judges, social workers, psychologists, French associations and intermediaries seemed to be involved in the majority of cases. She asked for administrative, financial and other support to tackle the practice.
A civil society organisation representative from Uganda presented testimonials from the biological parents and siblings of victim of illegal intercountry adoptions in the country. Several speakers discussed problems of poverty and limited access to education in the context of illegal intercountry adoptions. One speaker said she was told that her child would be returned following the completion of her education, but subsequently she could not get in touch with the organisation in charge of the adoption nor receive information regarding the whereabouts of her child. Another person said she had given her daughter away to receive an education in the United States of America. The daughter’s adoptive parents had realised that the daughter was taken in an unlawful way, and returned her to her birth mother. Another person recounted events leading to her sister being taken, saying that her family was lied to regarding her return home.
JÉRÔME BONNAFONT, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the previous testimonies had been very moving. Trafficking was usually linked to goods, but unfortunately also affected children. These practices were unacceptable. Legislation needed to address the practices, in the name of children and their best interests. Adoptions were meant to protect children, rather than provide opportunities for their exploitation. Mr. Bonnafont said the French adoption system had been updated to address illegal intercountry adoptions. New legal provisions strengthened monitoring of adoption agencies and reduced the risks of abuse, among other things. Intercountry adoption took off in the 1950s and reached a peak in the 2000s. France had decided to address the past in cooperation with organisations who conducted research into illegal adoptions. It had commissioned a 2021 study on the practice. France was committed to preventing this phenomenon and to identifying illicit practices. It had a firm intention to respond to the demands of all persons affected.
Second Panel on the Relevance of the Joint Statement
COLINE FANON, President, Racines Perdues, said each story of illegal intercountry adoption was different. She referred to a case in Guatemala in which a young person was abducted and later discovered in Canada. Another Guatemalan woman had been falsely told that her baby, who had been illegally adopted, had died. The voices of the child victims of adoptions needed to be heard. Civil society organisations were raising awareness in that regard. The scale of this phenomenon was large, and finding biological parents was a real mission. Illegal adoptions violated children’s rights, and should be considered as a crime against humanity. Fraud and falsifications needed to be tackled. In the case of Guatemala, adoptions were related to broader conflicts. The search for the origins of victims was crucial.
CELIN FÄSSLER, Spokesperson for Back to the Roots, said that not knowing about your origins felt like having a hole in your heart, and the pain was there forever. Back to the Roots initialised the process of developing the joint statement on illegal intercountry adoptions in 2019. Painful details regarding illegal adoptions emerged in the organisation’s research into the phenomenon; it was contacted by many people. A platform was being set up to support Sri Lankan victims of illegal adoption living in Switzerland. As of 2022, the organisation was funded in part by the Swiss Government. Illegally adopted people needed more effective tools and DNA databases in countries of origin in order to effectively search for their biological families. The organisation was committed to improving current processes and advancing them. Mothers wanted to hug their children before their deaths.
LYNELLE LONG, President, InterCountry Adoptee Voices, said that she was a Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia. She thanked all institutions for their support, especially the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. The joint statement represented an important milestone. Ms. Long called for the rights of adoptees to be recognised. A collaborative paper addressing the phenomenon in nine countries was produced by the organisation. There was a need for a legislative framework that criminalised the practice, removed barriers like statutes of limitations and provided compensation. Truth investigations needed to lead to access to all available information and processing. There was also a need for specialised support in post-adoption domains. All inter-country adoptions needed to stop until it could be ensured that they were conducted properly.
EMMANUELLE HEBERT, Representative of Réseau des Adopté-es à l’International en France, said she had been engaged in two decades of research into her own story, including in her real home country, India. She mentioned a 2013 American study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics which revealed that the suicide rate was four times higher among adoptees. To implement the joint declaration, France could establish a protocol to assist in the search for origins without a time limit. It was imperative to integrate adoptees into all dedicated bodies so that they could bring their expertise and be consulted in substantive decision-making processes. States could empower independent non-profit organizations that were experts in research assistance, and collaborate with adoptee structures that had always demonstrated integrity and did not benefit from their activity. Research activities should not be centralised within States or agencies that had been involved in illicit practices. France needed to provide an exclusive derogation for adoptees so that they could legally carry out DNA tests as part of the search for their origins. France could also facilitate access to adoption files and archives, including diplomatic ones. France should respect the rights of adopted persons. Speaking on behalf of present and future victims of the practice, including birth and adoptive families, Ms. Hebert called upon States to take measures to address the phenomenon.
FILIPENKO YEVHENIA, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Office and Other International Organizations in Geneva, said that every provision of the joint statement resonated strongly in Ukraine. In the occupied territory, children were being forcibly deported to a foreign country. Hundreds of thousands of children were taken to Russia and adopted illegally. Hague Convention provisions needed to be respected. Forced deportation of Ukrainian children was a crime against humanity, genocide and a war crime. This practice began in 2014. During the nine-year occupation and prior to 2022, Russia developed mechanisms for forced deportations of children from the occupied areas. Russia’s policy aimed at erasing children’s Ukrainian identity. Between 2014 and 2017, thousands of Crimean children were adopted in Russia. More than 380 orphans from Donbas were transferred to 19 regions of Russia, and more than 1,000 children from Mariupol had been adopted in Russia. The latest information, from September 2023, stated that 19,000 Ukrainian children had been forcibly transferred or deported to Belarus or Russia so far. Russia was blocking the process of identification, verification and return of the children. The Ukrainian side had managed to return only 386 children to Ukraine. The international community needed to condemn this practice in the strongest possible terms. Accountability for those responsible for abductions and adoptions needed to be secured.
A member of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called for cooperative efforts to address illegal intercountry adoptions. It was clear that this phenomenon was extremely complex, due to multiple actors and multiple mechanisms. Article 20 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child addressed the phenomenon. The public needed to be informed about the issue, which still lacked visibility. Networking was also necessary. Country visits were carried out upon country invitations. The Working Group would try to assist in domestic implementation of provisions addressing the issue. Due to the emotional toll, this represented a risky venture in some countries. The Working Group aimed to identify structural issues, such as the lack of legislation and other aspects. They also provided technical cooperation and assistance, aware of loopholes in practice or legislation. Complex problems called for complex answers. Victims, societies and civil society organisations needed to be at the centre of strategies to address the issue. The speaker conveyed admiration of the victims who testified.
SIOBHÁN MULLALLY, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, said that this was an important event and she wanted to highlight it as an important example of inter-institutional cooperation within and beyond the United Nations. She would continue to use the joint statement to advocate for greater awareness of illegal intercountry adoptions, and look for ways to prevent the phenomenon and ensure proper protection and access to remedies. Intercountry illegal adoptions were linked to trafficking. The legal definition of trafficking could overlap with that of illegal adoption, as the purpose of trafficking was open-ended. In terms of international law, there was no necessity to show the means, such as force, or the will of the child, given their special status. She would continue to make public statements in response to evolving situations, such as the conflict in Ukraine, climate change disasters, and other heightened risks for illegal adoptions. Effective measures and mechanisms were needed to prevent trafficking of children. The joint statement noted the obligation of States to identify cases of illegal adoptions within social services and border units, and to raise awareness of how to report these cases properly.
SUELA JANINA, Expert of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said that the Committee was engaged in inter-institutional cooperation and thanked the victims and their representatives for their statements. The Committee needed to be a voice for the victims to raise awareness of the practice and help to prevent it. Enforced disappearances had devastating consequences, especially since they endangered children’s identities. The joint statement and the international human rights conventions should govern inter-country adoptions. Treaty bodies such as the Committee on Enforced Disappearances could make cases visible and help search for solutions. A variety of tools, such as the Committee’s individual complaints procedure, were at victims’ disposal. During country visits, Committee Experts could speak with the authorities regarding issues raised by individuals and civil society. The Experts supported the criminalisation of intercountry adoptions, and encouraged institutions to undertake investigations, pursue mutual legal assistance and establish commissions. The Experts could also help to integrate debates on the issue into the Human Rights Council or other events.
BENOÎT VAN KEIRSBILCK, Expert of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, praised the commitment of those involved in addressing the issue. He said he had personal experience in the domain of intercountry adoption, and worked to raise awareness of the issue within the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Committee issued specific recommendations for addressing intercountry adoptions within its concluding observations. It regularly cooperated with stakeholders to set up specific supports for victims. France had conducted praiseworthy studies relating to illicit adoption practices. Prevention was a major concern. All people investigating their roots needed support. Countries needed to conduct inquiries as required, train personnel and upgrade training procedures to address the issue. There were still many things to be done, as this meeting showed. Those who were victims in the past still needed justice. In extraordinary circumstances such as wars and natural disasters, adoption of children or deportations continued to take place. These incidents should not continue.
An Ethiopian civil society organization presented testimonies from persons affected by illegal intercountry adoption. One person said that he did not believe his son was alive, many years after being taken away. Another person stated that his children were taken on the pretext of his disability, and he never heard from them since. One person said that he was physically prevented from getting in contact with his children by the adoption agency and he feared for their safety. Another person was promised that their child would be returned after 18 years, following the end of all schooling, however this did not happen.
LINDA TROTTER, victim of an illegal intercountry adoption from Greece, said that she was one of the 4,000 children adopted from Greece in the 1950s and the 1960s in the context of the Cold War. Her biological mother was coerced to give consent to the adoption and documents were falsified. Orphanages and doctors all benefited from this, in both Greece and the United States. Many children suffered various abuses. Greece did not comply with the international regulations regarding inter-country adoptions. There was no transparency, as information was not made available. Greece refused to offer citizenship to the children who left Greece for another country. The United States needed to provide automatic United States citizenship to these children, which it did not, and support comprehensive investigations into the cases of adopted children.
A representative of civil society from Chile said that 20,000 Chilean children were taken abroad, and that her organisation represented those children’s mothers. A DNA database needed to be set up so that all States could stock data. Italy, France and Switzerland welcomed thousands of Chilean children. These illegal adoptions should be called crimes against humanity. States needed to be held accountable. The suffering never ended.
A representative of a civil society organization based in the Netherlands said that her home country, Bangladesh, lacked DNA records and other data on intercountry adoptions.
Civil society members representing Tamil rights said that in Sri Lanka, over 140,000 disappearances had occurred. Officials had recently stated that around 10 people had been found. Of the many thousands who remained disappeared, many were children. Many parents of these children passed away without finding out any information on their whereabouts. The Sri Lankan Government needed to be held accountable for these disappearances. About 40 children vanished each day in Sri Lanka. Their whereabouts remained unknown. Many were exposed to different forms of violence or were feared dead.
The mother of a victim of an illegal intercountry adoption in the Republic of Korea testified that her daughter went missing decades ago. She was treated as abandoned and taken by an orphanage, even though the mother regularly inquired about her at the local police station. Her daughter ended up in the United States. Through DNA testing, family links were proven. She named an adoption agency that took her child from the orphanage and sold her to a new family. She called on Korea and the United Nations to address this issue.
OLIVIER DE FROUVILLE, Chair, Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said that the meeting was the first of its kind. He promised that the institutions that had participated would stay in touch with the families of victims and provide further support. There was a rising tide of people adopted during the 1970s and later who were now looking for their relatives. Victims were desperately looking for incoherences in official papers that could shed light on crimes and deception. The claims of victims were resounding ever louder, and we needed to hear them. States needed to respect human rights conventions and instruments, the joint statement constituting a practical guide in that domain. The treaty body system offered several procedures that could be triggered to help persuade States to implement effective measures. Also, multilateral bodies such as the Human Rights Council needed to address the issue in the near future. The practice of inter-country adoptions was a multilateral and a societal issue, and needed to be treated accordingly.
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