Putin must stand trial for abducting children from Ukraine
For a second year, Ukraine is suffering from the all-out military aggression of Russia. One of the most vulnerable groups has proved to be the country’s children.
Russia is violating the basic principles that defend children in wartime: it is deporting children from Ukraine, as documented by the Russian passports they have been given and citizenship of the Russian Federation, and their transfer to foster families in Russia. There are sound reasons, therefore, why the warrants issued by the International Criminal Court on Friday, 17 March, for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation (RF) Children’s Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova.
It complicates matters, alas, that neither Ukrainian nor international human rights organisations have access to full information about the true scale of this crime. On the pretext of ‘saving’ people, Russia has resorted to the forced transfer of Ukrainian families and children: they have deported children whose parents have died or are in an unknown location; they have also taken away children who were being raised in children’s home, or whose parents failed to pass the filtration procedure.
Such transfers take place both to Russia itself and to the territories temporarily occupied by Russian forces in Ukraine. Russia is doing all it can to integrate the abducted children into Russian society.
There is still no possibility of establishing the exact numbers of deported children. As of the end of March 2023, according to the Ukrainian government’s “Children of War” portal, the authorities possessed information concerning 16,200 children who had been abducted and taken to Russia. Only 324 of them have been returned to their families. In summer last year, meanwhile, the Russian side officially declared that it had transferred more than three hundred thousand children from the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine (see end note , and the Addendum on “Information in Russian — and English”].
This forced transfer is systematic. Russia has taken decisive measures to destroy these children’s Ukrainian identity.
In May 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an Edict facilitating the fast-track conferral of RF citizenship on children from Ukraine and from the territories temporarily occupied by Russian forces who are orphans or without parental care (guardianship). Once a child has acquired Russian citizenship the danger is that he or she might be adopted. Russian legislation gives those adopting a child the right to alter basic information: they can give the girl or boy a new name; they can change the date and even the place of birth. We know of a few cases when deported children were transferred directly to foster families in Russia.
One pretext offered for transferring entire groups of children from the occupied territories is to care for their health at sanatoria and summer camps in Russia. In August 2022, for example, a group of almost three hundred children were transferred from various places in the Kharkiv Region — Izium, Kupiansk, Balakliia and other localities — to be treated at the Mishka summer camp in the Black Sea resort of Gelendjik (southern Russia, Krasnodar Region). The following month, Ukraine’s armed forces drove the invaders out of the Kharkiv Region. The Russian side refused to return the children. Parents were told they must travel to Russia to reclaim their sons and daughters. The urgent acquisition of the necessary documents and the long journey from Ukraine to Russia via Europe in order to find their children and bring them home imposed a considerable financial burden on the parents. Today volunteers are helping to bring this group of abducted children back to Ukraine.
Maria Lvova-Belova and international law
The entire process is supervised by Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian President’s plenipotentiary for children (usually referred to as the RF Children’s Commissioner). She visits the occupied territories in person. Children from Ukraine have been deported to 57 of the Russian Federation’s 83 Regions and Republics; some were even sent ten thousand kilometres away from their homes to Sakhalin, off Russia’s Pacific coast.
On 26 October 2022, Lvova-Belova gave a press conference. 350 children from eastern Ukraine, she announced, had already been adopted by Russian families; more than a thousand others, she added, were awaiting adoption.
Ukrainian children are given no choice. They are forced to attend schools in Russia; they are subjected to the propaganda of the Russian State; and they live in Russian families where an attempt is made to uproot everything that links them to Ukraine. The adoption of Ukrainian children in Russia is a flagrant violation of International Humanitarian Law.
Article 21 of the 1989 UN “Convention on the Rights of the Child” (to which both Ukraine and Russia are signatories) states that the authorities should ensure “that the adoption of a child is authorized only by competent authorities who determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures and on the basis of all pertinent and reliable information, that the adoption is permissible in view of the child’s status concerning parents, relatives and legal guardians”.
Russian actions in Ukraine are also in breach of Articles 49 (Deportations, Evacuations, Transfers) and 50 (Children) of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), which concerns “the Protection of the Civilian Population in wartime”. Adoption in another country can only be considered if a child cannot be raised or transferred to a family in his or her home country. (“Should the local institutions be inadequate for the purpose,” states Article 50, “the Occupying Power shall make arrangements for the maintenance and education, if possible by persons of their own nationality, language and religion, of children who are orphaned or separated from their parents as a result of the war and who cannot be adequately cared for by a near relative or friend.”)
The forced resettlement or deportation of persons from an occupied territory imposes an obligation (Article 50) on the Occupying Power to take “all necessary steps to facilitate the identification of children and the registration of their parentage.” Yet Russia disregards these norms of International Humanitarian Law. The forced transfer of a group of children from one nation (religion, etc.) to another is one definition of genocide in Article 2 of the 1948 UN “Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” and in Article 6 of the 1998 Rome Statute whereby the International Criminal Court was established.
… and Return
At present, there are difficulties in communication between the responsible agencies over establishing the identity of the deported children and their return to Ukraine.
Russia is taking no measures to return the children to their families and relatives. On the contrary, it is deliberately placing them with other unrelated families and will not provide any information (to the International Red Cross, UNICEF, the Ukrainian government or human rights organisations) about these children and their current location.
There is an urgent need to find ways of bringing the children back home. One such mechanism, envisaged in the Fourth Geneva Convention (Section V), could involve a neutral country trusted by all parties to the conflict. Turkey, Kazakhstan, China, the United Arab Emirates or another country, perhaps, might take on such a mission.
Procedures must be developed for the exchange of information via the neutral country and mechanisms for the return of children to Ukraine, depending on the circumstances — those whose parents have died; those deported as part of an institution; those whose parents are today in detention; and those children deported on the pretext of caring for their health — of these various groups.
 Evidently, these figures including those deported as part of their family (ed.).
Information in Russian — and in English (tr.)
Publications on this subject by the Interfax News Agency indicate how information is restricted and managed for audiences in Russia and abroad.
On 18 June 2022, Interfax reported a statement (see above) by RF Defence Ministry spokesman Mikhail Mizintsev: “More than 307,000 children have been evacuated to Russia”, he said, “from Ukraine and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics since the end of February”. This report appeared in Russian only.
A month after the invasion, the Interfax Agency’s English-language service reported (23 March) a Defence Ministry statement that “Over 384,000 people […] including more than 80,000 children had been evacuated to Russia from Ukraine, the LPR and DPR”. A week earlier (15 March), Interfax reported that among the 15 persons Canada had added to its sanctions list were Defence Ministry spokesmen Mizintsev and Igor Konashenkov.