The current situation in Ukraine has sent the entire international community into a tizzy. Within more than a year, NGOs, UN bodies, and the international press were able to document an increasing number of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. One of the allegations that strongly resonates nowadays is the deportation and forcible transfer of Ukrainian children by Russian agents as part of an ongoing policy of the current government of Russia, in violation of provisions and fundamental principles of international law.
The context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict leading to deportation and forcible transfer
On 24 February 2022, following the recognition of two pro-Russian Ukrainian regions (Donetsk and Luhansk), the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, authorized the launch of a “special military operation” in order to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine, according to the words used by the Permanent Representation of the Russian Federation to the United Nations in an official letter addressed to the Secretary-General on the same date (United Nations Security Council (UNSC), 2022).
More than a year after the invasion, many violations of principles and provisions of international law by Russian officials were brought to light by various NGOs and UN bodies. One such example is the report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) which intends to demonstrate prima facie the existence of a system of forcible transfer of civilians to Russian and Russian-controlled territories. HRW recounts the experience of one volunteer who was asked by Ukrainian regional authorities to rescue children between the ages of 2 and 17, whose families had not retrieved them from a particular healthcare facility (HRW, 2022, p. 54).
The volunteer was reportedly intercepted at a checkpoint in Manhush by both a military officer and a supposed Donetsk Peoples Republic Minister of Social Policy (HRW, 2022, p. 54). The children he was going to rescue were taken away from him and subsequently taken to various destinations – the traces of 11 of them remained unknown until the publication of the report (HRW, 2022, p. 55).
This information concurred with the content published later on the official website of the Russian Commission on the Rights of the Child, titled “Answers to the questions on family placement of orphans from the DNR and LNR in Russian families” (Commissioner for Children’s Rights under the President of the Russian Federation, 2022).
Further prima facie evidence of deportation and forcible transfers
Another noteworthy report issued by the Yale School of Public Health Humanitarian Research Lab (Yale HRL), intends to prove prima facie the existence of a network of camps and facilities both in mainland Russia and those occupied by Russia, where children are purportedly held for various purposes, including political “re-education” in a bid to brainwash them (Yale HRL, 2023, p.14).
According to it, four main categories of children are targeted by the Russian re-education system: children with parents or legal guardians, children considered orphans by Russia, and children that were under the care of Ukrainian institutions prior to the February 2022 invasion (Yale HRL, 2023, p.4).
The approximate number of children taken remains blurred (Yale HRL, 2023, p.10). The narratives under which children are taken, yet, seem to be quite clear, including alleged evacuation from orphanages and front lines, transfers for medical care, adoption, placement in a foster family, and transfers under [manipulated] consent of parents under the promise of taking them to recreational camps (Yale HRL, 2023, p.10).
The desperation is such that the consent of the parents is shamefully circumvented by Russian agents who in many cases persuade them to sign blank documents (Yale HRL, 2023, p. 13) – a red herring that would later be used to give a semblance of lawfulness to the whole process. In some other cases, the Russians even withhold children from their parents, unilaterally suspending their return (Yale HRL, 2023, p.16).
The evidence collected by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine (The Commission) shows a widespread pattern of transfers and deportation of children. It outlines the changes in the policy of the current government of Russia which decreed the possibility of applying for Russian citizenship for the benefit of a certain category of children – ostensibly to accelerate and facilitate the process for permanent guardianship (Decree of the President of the Russian Federation, 2022; UNHRC, 2023, para. 96). Further, the first grant of citizenship in favor of children originally from DNR was confirmed in July 2022 (Amnesty International, 2022, p. 28).
A similar pattern to that mentioned in the Yale HRL report can be noticed in the report of The Commission: transfers affecting children who lost parents or temporarily lost contact with them during hostilities; transfers of children in institutions; prolonged transfers; accommodation in foster families; adoptions (UNHRC, 2023, para. 97-100).
How does the international community endeavour to repel these acts?
The camp, foster care, and adoption system appear to be a well-thought-out and planned scheme with federal and regional leaders at the helm who veneer their conduct in the language of human rights (Yale HRL, 2023, p. 17-18). In that sense, the reaction of the international community was not long in coming with regard to the main figures – several sanctions were applied to them along with the initiation of criminal prosecutions at the international level.
On 22 February 2023, the prosecutor of the permanent international criminal court, Karim Khan – following the evidence gathered and in the application of the Rome Statute – submitted an application against the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova (ICC Press Release, 2023).
On 17 March 2023, the request resulted in the issuance of an arrest warrant against them both on account of the war crime of unlawful deportation of the population (children) and on that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation (ICC Press Release, 2023). The international community remained greatly surprised that the crime of genocide (Article 6 of the Rome Statute) was not included in the charges.
In April 2023, the UNSC chair was reserved for Russian representation (UNSC, Security Council Presidency). In the use of this prerogative, the Russian representation convened an informal meeting to address issues concerning children in Ukraine – led virtually by Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova (The Guardian, 2023).
In repudiation of Russian actions, states turned a blind eye to the speaker walking away from the meeting (The Guardian, 2023). The US and the UK for their part, blocked the UN webcast in order to avoid the spread of disinformation (The Guardian, 2023).
International sanctions have become a key element in international relations. They are often applied against individuals, states, and non-state agencies that pose a threat to international peace and security. States and international organizations have been imposing sanctions against individuals and entities that were somehow fueling the war in Ukraine.
The UK and New Zealand governments, for instance, have included Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova on their sanctions list in an attempt to exert pressure against Russia (UK Press release, 2023; New Zealand Foreign Affairs & Trade, 2023). A large economic bloc such as the European Union also included both in its list of sanctioned individuals, in collaboration with the efforts of the international community to stop the acts of violence once and for all (European Council, 2023; Official Journal of the European Union, 2023).
Some avenues worth considering
The events that occurred since the beginning of the invasion have a devastating impact on children’s rights. Children separated from their parents during a humanitarian emergency cannot ever be assumed orphans, therefore, cannot be subject to adoption – or “guardianship” as called by Russian officials. Until the parental situation is verified, they must be considered as still having living relatives or legal guardians.
The deportation and forcible transfer of Ukrainian children by Russian officials constitute grave violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. While there is no single solution to this complex issue, it is paramount that the international community continues to focus on preventing these crimes from happening in the first place: a combination of diplomatic pressure and humanitarian support may provide important short-term solutions in order to safeguard and uphold children’s rights. Addressing criminal accountability, though, remains a long-term process due to the complexities that must be dealt with in the first place.
As an NGO focused on the well-being of children worldwide, Humanium strongly condemns deportation, forcible transfer, and violence against children. Humanium continues to work to raise awareness of the rights of children. For this purpose, we appeal to the collaboration of those who identify themselves with the cause. If you would like to support our cause, please consider donating, sponsoring, or volunteering in projects which Humanium is currently implementing.
Written by Camila Ortiz Britez
Amnesty International (2022) ‘Like a prison convoy’: Russia’s unlawful transfer and abuse of civilians in Ukraine during ‘filtration’. Obtained from Amnesty International at https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur50/6136/2022/en/, accessed on 28 February 2023.
Commissioner for Children’s Rights under the President of the Russian Federation (2022) Answers to the questions on family placement of orphans from the DNR and LNR in Russian families. Obtained from the Commissioner for Children’s Rights under the President of the Russian Federation at http://deti.gov.ru/articles/news/otvety-po-voprosam-semejnogo-ustrojstva-detej-sirot-iz-dnr-i-lnr-v-rossijskie-sem-i, accessed on 28 February 2023.
Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of 30 May 2022 No. 330 on Amendments to the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation dated 24 April 2019, No. 183. On Determining for Humanitarian Purposes, the Categories of Persons Entitled to Apply for Citizenship of the Russian Federation in a Simplified Manner. Obtained from the Official Internet Portal of Legal Information at http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001202205300008, accessed on 1 March 2023.
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Yale School of Public Health, Humanitarian Research Lab (2023) Russia’s systematic program for the re-education & adoption of Ukraine’s children. Obtained from the Yale School of Public Health at https://hub.conflictobservatory.org/portal/sharing/rest/content/items/97f919ccfe524d31a241b53ca44076b8/data#:~:text=More%20than%206%2C000%20children%20in,Ukraine%20on%2024%20February%202022, accessed on 8 March 2023.