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Accountability comes knocking: more European countries investigate illicit intercountry adoption activities

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This article is the first in a series about intercountry adoptions. While over 160,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since the 1950-53 Korean War, it is believed there have been many cases that the adoptions infringed on relevant laws of the sending or receiving countries or violated the children's human rights to know the truth on filiation. The series will review such abuses in transnational adoptions, not only of Korean children but also those in other nations, and receiving countries' move for own investigations. This series is co-organized with Human Rights Beyond Borders. ― ED.?

By Ross Oke

Ross Oke, general manager of Human Rights Beyond Borders / Courtesy of Human Rights Beyond Borders
Ross Oke, general manager of Human Rights Beyond Borders / Courtesy of Human Rights Beyond Borders
Defending and advocating human rights requires continuous engagement. One doesn't simply sit back and hope that the U.N. or other human rights bodies will initiate investigations. And even when this does occur, it requires constantly knocking on people's doors ― diplomats, U.N. officials, relevant experts, and stakeholders to ensure accountability. It also means that when we see U.N. rights statements, government truth-seeking missions, and so on, these are a culmination of stakeholders' active advocacy efforts.

Last year, a joint statement on illegal intercountry adoptions was released by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, 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.

In the context of intercountry adoption, "illegal" means infringed on the relevant laws of the state of origin or of the receiving countries, or in violation of relevant human rights norms. And "abuse" means when an adoption of a child was accomplished by such an illegal process.

The statement calls on states to investigate all illegal intercountry adoptions and reaffirms that "victims of illegal adoptions have the right to know the truth." The timing of this statement wasn't random but arrived as several European countries that received Korean adoptees undertook investigations into intercountry adoption abuses after a slew of adoptee abuses emerged and advocacy by adoptee groups, reports, and others.

In December 2019, Switzerland requested the Zurich University of Applied Sciences to conduct an inquiry into abusive intercountry adoption practices in Sri Lanka. The final report, released the following year, revealed that as early as the 1980s, the Sri Lankan media and Swiss Embassy issued warnings about systematic abuses. However, at the time, the Swiss government refrained from taking action; instead, it carried on with business as usual. The report concludes that due to serious misconduct by Swiss authorities, there should be further investigations into all cantons and other sending countries. However, the Swiss government dismissed the recommendation, stating that pursuing broader investigations is a task for academic researchers.

In another case, Belgium tasked an independent commission to investigate intercountry adoption practices in Ethiopia as part of its adoption reform efforts, while a Belgian court investigated an orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo over allegations of child trafficking. While one could blame the sending countries or the adoption actors in those countries, receiving countries also have a responsibility to protect the rights of the children they adopt, and this includes evaluating and reforming their systems that allow such adoptions.

In 2021, Denmark examined intercountry adoptions from Chile and uncovered a pattern of poor practices and rights violations. The investigative committee declared that the Danish government could not ensure that all adoptions at the time were legal. A second investigation examined a wider scope of sending countries and confirmed further illicit activity in intercountry adoptions to Denmark.

In February 2022, the Netherlands introduced a temporary moratorium on all its intercountry adoptions after a special commission found that the Dutch government failed to take sufficient safeguards and measures to monitor adoption procedures. At the end of last year, the Dutch government resumed intercountry adoptions with a select few countries while maintaining a ban on other countries.

In November 2022, France launched an investigation to identify illicit intercountry adoption activities and prevent their recurrence. Until February that year, France permitted individual adoptions, in which a couple could adopt without using an accredited body or adoption agency. International rights bodies and adoption experts have long said that a lack of state oversight in such private arrangements creates conditions conducive to abuses. Alongside the official investigation, researchers gained permission from the French Foreign Affairs Ministry to compile independent research. The report was released early this year and found wide-scale illicit activity in over 20 countries since 1979. Despite French diplomats issuing alarms to their central government, France continued adopting children.

A variety of current investigative actions have arisen at all levels ― international, national, and local. Sweden's investigation isn't restricted to Korea but also includes other sending countries as it aims to determine whether Swedish authorities knew about the illicit activities going on in sending countries. Norway's inquiry was prompted by a combination of Korea's own investigative efforts into hundreds of intercountry adoption abuse cases and local news reports of Norwegian adoptees claiming their rights were violated during their adoptions. Like Sweden, Norway's investigation includes Korea and seeks to understand whether the Norwegian government violated any rights.

While the scope of these investigations has varied between countries, several common patterns emerge. First, in many cases, European receiving countries received repeated warnings about adoption abuses, sometimes by their own consular services in the sending countries. As I said earlier, these investigations occurred after much effort and warnings. Second, those investigations have reported a pattern of abuses and called for further inquiries that include a wider scope of sending countries. Third, the fact that European receiving countries adopted children from sending countries where pervasive abuses took place raises questions about why European countries did not launch these investigations earlier.

The answer may involve the shifting nature of discussions on illicit intercountry adoption practices. In the past, sending countries shouldered much, if not all, of the blame, but today, receiving countries are being pushed to take accountability for their role. A major impetus for this shift, along with the wave of investigations, is the result of campaigns by adult adoptees to demand that their adoptive countries take accountability for violating their rights. Some sending countries are also playing a greater role in examining not only their past but current adoption practices, and adult adoptees have also played a role in many of these activities as well.

We cannot rely solely on the good faith of sending and receiving countries to conduct comprehensive investigations. Instead, adoptees, their parents, whether adoptive or biological and other stakeholders must proactively compel their governments to not only investigate but also implement measures for accountability. Without such persistent pressure, our knocks will go unanswered.

Ross Oke is the general manager of Human Rights Beyond Borders. He has been involved in child rights activism for two decades. He served as a member of the International Working Group on Universal Birth Registration.
Kim Rahn


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