Combating Illegal Deportation and Forced Displacement of Ukrainian Children: Return and Justice
Throughout February 2022-August 2023, at least thousands of Ukrainian children suffered from illegal deportation or forced displacement by the Russian Federation. Among them are the orphaned children and children deprived of parental care, children with disabilities, children separated from legal representatives, as well as those who have lost their parents due to armed conflict. Under the pretext of the so-called evacuation, recreation or healthcare, they were taken to at least 57 regions of the Russian Federation, in 19 of which 380 children became victims of forced transfer to Russian families. Ukrainian children were also deported to the territory of Belarus within the framework of the common policy of the Union State, to the territory of the occupied Crimean peninsula and South Ossetia, the occupied region of Georgia.
Illegal deportations of children from Ukraine began after the occupation of the Crimean peninsula and the establishment of effective control by organized armed groups in Donbas. Information about the victims of illegal transfers and adoptions remains unknown since the Russian Federation violates its obligation to provide information on their whereabouts and illegal changes in legal status, as well as to facilitate the repatriation of such children.
As of the beginning of September 2023, joint efforts of Ukrainian NGOs, authorities and independent media managed to return 386 children from the territories controlled by the Russian Federation. However, it is necessary to develop and implement unified return mechanisms due the factors such as limited effectiveness and protracted duration of available repatriation schemes, the abuse by Russian agents of the vulnerable status of children and their legal representatives, the refusal of the Russian Federation to return the orphaned children and children deprived of parental care, the risk that children will become victims of other international crimes.
Agreeing with the conclusions of the experts of the Moscow Mechanism of the OSCE and the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, we insist that illegal deportation and forced displacement do not correspond to the principle of the best interests of the child and are accompanied by numerous violations of both the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of the Civilian Persons in Time of War and the Additional Protocol (I) on the protection of victims of international armed conflicts, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely: the right to preserve identity, including citizenship; the right to education; freedom from inhuman treatment; freedom of expression; the right to a name; the right to family and family reunification; the right to enjoy one’s own culture; non-discrimination.
In our opinion, certain actions of the Russian Federation within the framework of policy on russification and militarization of Ukrainian children display the signs of war crimes (illegal deportation and forced transfer, unjustified delay in repatriation, propaganda of voluntary joining the armed forces of the opposing state), crimes against humanity (deportation and forced displacement, discriminatory persecution) and genocide (forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to the Russian national group).
The actions of the Russian Federation aimed at illegal deportation, forced displacement, russification and refusal to repatriate Ukrainian children have been repeatedly condemned by the international community. On April 27, 2023, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in its Resolution 2495 (2023) recognized them as having signs of genocide against the Ukrainian nation. On March 17, 2023, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the II International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for president Vladimir Putin and the Russian president’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, in connection with the illegal deportation of children from the occupied territories of Ukraine to Russia.
Taking into account the vulnerability of children as victims of armed conflict and the scale of illegal acts committed by the Russian Federation related to their illegal deportation, forced displacement and unjustified delay in repatriation, we emphasize the need to consolidate efforts to support the following decisions:
- Through joint diplomatic pressure of representatives of the international community, force the Russian Federation to fulfill its obligations in accordance with Article 78 of the Additional Protocol (I) to the Geneva Conventions and immediately provide comprehensive lists of the names and whereabouts of all Ukrainian children who were illegally deported to the Russian Federation or forcibly transferred to the territory under its effective control with an indication of the legal status of each child, in particular, cases of adoption or establishment of guardianship, changes in personal data.
- Adopt the Resolution of the UN General Assembly on international obligations in the field of repatriation of Ukrainian children, clearly establishing the requirements for russia, Ukraine and the participating states of the Four Geneva Conventions in accordance with Article 1 common to them.
- Establish, on the basis of the adopted Resolution (see item 2), a unified transparent legal mechanism for the return of Ukrainian children by appointing a third party and signing a series of binding international treaties between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, in which the third party, regardless of whether it is a state, a group of states, an international organization or any other entity acceptable to the parties, will act as both a mediator and a guarantor of the implementation of agreements.
- Ensure individual approach in the activities of any agreed mechanism for the return of Ukrainian children, carrying out in each individual case an independent and impartial assessment of the best interests of the child, as well as guaranteeing safe living conditions, development and well-being of each minor, determined by the individual trajectory of return.
- Contribute to the investigation — both at the national and international level — of international crimes committed by Russian agents against Ukrainian children in connection with their illegal deportation and forced displacement, with the observance of a victim-centered approach, as well as to cooperate with the aim of unifying the process of implementation of the principle of universal jurisdiction, simplifying and increasing the clarity of the procedure for victims to apply to the competent authorities.
- Ensure the preservation of evidence and the fulfillment of the right to the truth, in particular through the activities of independent international commissions, monitoring missions and other mechanisms for establishing and verifying the facts of illegal deportation, forced displacement, forcible transfer to Russian families, unjustified delay in repatriation and other illegal acts that accompany the above-mentioned international crimes against Ukrainian children.
- Facilitate the prosecution of persons who have committed international crimes, in particular, by ensuring the execution of decisions and cooperation with the International Criminal Court.
- Ensure fair compensation from the Russian Federation to Ukrainian children who survived illegal deportation and forced displacement, including through confiscation and repurposing of frozen assets of persons guilty of such acts.
- Join the efforts of competent international governmental and non-governmental organizations and urgently provide Ukraine with all the necessary assistance, including organizational, informational, legal, logistical and financial, to support its actions regarding the identification, return, rehabilitation and reintegration of Ukrainian children.
Mutual strengthening, effective and high-quality advocacy activities, consolidation of the human rights movement and developing shared values regarding the return of Ukrainian children and bringing guilty persons to justice will contribute to implementation of the aforementioned decisions both at the national and international levels, and will ensure the restoration of the international legal order, stable peace, security and justice.