During the afternoon of the 6th April, ABC online published a story about the 60 Minutes crew being detained in Lebanon while filming a story. The news article reported that foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop was, at the time, seeking information on the incident.
The whole horrendous tale was yet to emerge, and the primary concern at that point, as the story was only beginning to break, was for the safety of reporter Tara Brown, and the other TV crew members, Stephen Rice, Ben Williamson and David Ballment.
Over the coming days and weeks more details became apparent – Sally Faulkner’s long and desperate battle to obtain her children from their Lebanese father, the bank statement tendered to the court in Lebanon that showed a $69,000 payout by Channel 9 to a child recovery firm, as well as various media reports that Ali Elamine, the children’s father was also paid handsomely to ‘drop’ charges so that Sally Faulkner and the Australian 60 minutes crew could come home.
As the full picture began to take shape, many Australians took to the talkback airwaves and social media to voice their outrage at what 60 Minutes had been involved in.
Who was thinking of the children?
60 Minutes has gone on the defence, saying it was reporting a story where it hoped to highlight the trauma of international custody battles.
But in playing a major part in the botched kidnapping, 60 Minutes stopped reporting and got involved. In doing so, 60 Minutes forgot (or completely disregarded) the most important thing of all – the emotional and physical wellbeing of the two small children whose plight it was supposed to expose.
The 60 Minutes crew put the children’s lives at risk and furthermore, must stand responsible for causing them unnecessary trauma – their grandmother was hurt and their mother sent to prison. The children must now cope with this, as they must deal with everything else they have been through in their young lives as a result of their family’s unusual living arrangements, and the breakdown of the relationship between their parents which got to a point where kidnapping seemed like a viable option.
Through this horrible incident, the children’s privacy has also been completely obliterated – their faces and names have been published – globally – something which is illegal in Australian court matters.
Which laws apply in international custody disputes?
Although this is an international incident, and Australian laws don’t apply, the reality is that many people end up living and working overseas as a matter of course at some point in their lives.
So it also stands to reason that these issues – cross border family disputes – need to be better understood. There are reports that international custody cases are on the rise – perhaps as a result of the sheer numbers of Australians now living outside.
Irrespective of statistics and the vast range of emotions involved, and even what might be in the ‘best interests of the children’ when it comes to international custody disputes, the law is murky.
The Hague Convention of 1980 requires that children remain in the country where custody is disputed. However, it is important to note that some Middle Eastern countries – Lebanon being one of them – are not members of the convention and therefore stand outside its rules.
In some countries, the father will automatically be awarded custody. And in some cases where families have travelled for successive years as ex-pats on corporate assignments, it is not simply a case of being able to ‘return home’.
How do the appropriate authorities determine exactly where ‘home’ might be, with all of the necessary support structures required for the spouse deemed responsible for raising the children, when the family has roamed the globe for years and may have friends and family scattered everywhere?
It is also important to consider where the children regard as ‘home’, especially when they might have been born and raised (or at least partly raised) in a country that is not the birth home of one or both of their parents.
So what have we learned?
Sadly, and irresponsibly, 60 Minutes has perpetuated the problem. But, as the dust begins to settle, we need to look for positives.
We must hope that the outrage and public debate has brought to light the fact that Australia should do more to strengthen its agreement with Lebanon and other countries regarding Co-operation on Protecting the Welfare of Children, which at this point in time does not always offer parents who apply for custody a guarantee of their hoped for, or intended outcome. Indeed, we need to ensure we have relevant and solid policies relating to all countries.
We must hope that the irresponsible actions of 60 minutes has made media outlets rethink their approach to complex and sensitive issues, to carefully consider the many and varied risks of barging into these types of situations and the consequences for those involved – particularly when they happen to be young children.
Lastly, we must hope that the actions by the 60 Minutes crew will serve as a warning to other Australians travelling overseas to live and work. For the record, disregarding the local laws of the country you are visiting for whatever reason is never a good idea. This kind of maverick and poorly thought out behaviour can get people into trouble abroad which puts a tremendous strain on our diplomatic resources, and sometimes – with or without deep pockets – jeopardises a safe return home .
In this case, the 60 Minutes crew may still have to return to Lebanon to face charges brought by the Government. The two staff from the child recovery firm involved remain in detention, with their fate yet to be determined. Sally Faulkner faces the very real possibility that she will never see her children again. The children, who remain in Lebanon with their father, will continue for the moment at least, to live without their mother, perhaps without contact with her too.
There have been no winners here.