Written by Leticia Cox
Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, it’s believed that more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been forcibly transferred to Russia.
United Nations investigators have stated that Russia’s compelled displacement of Ukrainian children to Russia or areas under Russian control constitutes a war crime. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, there is evidence of other war crimes, including hospital attacks, rape, torture, and wilful killings.
The Geneva Conventions and other international laws and agreements determine the rules for war crimes. Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law and torture are known as “crimes against humanity”– in some cases, “genocide”.
Military forces can’t deliberately attack civilians or the infrastructure they depend on, including power stations or water sources. Weapons, such as anti-personnel landmines and chemical or biological weapons, are banned, and the sick and the wounded must be cared for, including injured soldiers, who have rights as prisoners of war.
In March, The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague formally indicted the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Children’s Commissioner, on charges of orchestrating the mass abduction of Ukrainian children.
As a result, an international arrest warrant was issued for Putin, highlighting the pace with which the international legal community has pursued allegations of war crimes amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
These instances mark the ICC’s first cases since its prosecutors initiated an investigation into war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Ukraine the previous February.
The pre-trial judges of the court have asserted that there are “substantial grounds to believe that each suspect holds responsibility for the war crime of forcibly displacing the population, as well as the unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, to the harm of Ukrainian children.” The judges chose to disclose the suspects’ names to prevent further offences.
Initial reports appeared in the previous spring, revealing that Ukrainian children residing in occupied territories were being transported to Russia, with some even being adopted by Russian families. While Russia framed its actions as a humanitarian effort to rescue Ukrainian children from the war, Ukraine has accused Russia of committing genocide and characterizing these actions as war crimes.
Who are the children affected, and where do they come from?
The purported victims encompass children taken from Ukrainian state institutions within the occupied regions, children whose parents had sent them to Russian-administered “summer camps” from which they never returned, children whose parents were detained by Russian occupying forces, and children orphaned due to the conflict.
Most Ukrainian children captured by Russia originate from the regions currently occupied in the south and east of Ukraine. These regions include Kherson, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk, along with a smaller area in the Mykolaiv region.
Russia has acknowledged holding at least 1,400 Ukrainian children it designates as orphans, although it indicated that at least 2,000 had entered Russia unaccompanied. Additionally, several hundred children from the occupied areas remain in Russia after attending “re-education” camps with parental consent, yet were not returned as expected.
Since the invasion, approximately 400 Ukrainian orphans have been adopted by Russian families, as reported by the Ukrainian Regional Center for Human Rights, which based its assessment on statements from the Russian government.
Russia asserts that an additional 1,000 orphans are awaiting adoption. Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Children’s Commissioner, has recounted “adopting” a 15-year-old child from Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine devastated and seized by Russian forces.
Nonetheless, many of these Ukrainian children have surviving relatives diligently searching for them. Roughly 90% of Ukrainian children in state care during the invasion were classified as “social orphans,” indicating they had family members. Still, these relatives lacked the means to care for them.
The Russian government’s declarations regarding the orphans withhold their identities and pertinent details, making it challenging for Ukrainian and international authorities to identify and monitor them.
In certain instances, relatives have recognized children through videos disseminated by Russian state media, initiating efforts to secure their return. There are also documented cases of children ending up in Russian state care after fleeing the conflict in Ukraine via evacuation buses to Russia, as well as instances where children were separated from their parents in Russian filtration camps.
What are the “re-education” summer camps?
Over 6,000 Ukrainian children from the occupied areas attended summer camps funded by the Russian government. Several hundred of these children have not been reunited with their families. These camps, described as “re-education camps” in a February study by Yale University, were promoted by the occupying authorities as a means for children to experience peace from the war.
Since the onset of the conflict, even children as young as four months residing in occupied territories have been transported to 43 camps across Russia, including in the annexed Crimea and Siberia, for education with a pro-Russian patriotic and military focus.
Some parents have managed to retrieve their children by embarking on arduous journeys from Ukraine through Poland and the Baltics to southern Russia. Others have entrusted clandestine networks of anti-Putin volunteers with the power of attorney to facilitate their children’s extraction from Russia. However, videos released by regional Russian occupying authorities in November revealed hundreds of children still residing in these camps.
The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide forbids the “forcible transfer of children of the group to another group,” the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the “illicit transfer and non-return of children abroad.” The specific international law section under which the ICC intends to pursue this case remains uncertain.
Russia claims its actions are intended to protect Ukrainian children from the conflict. Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson for Putin, has additionally stated that Russia does not acknowledge the authority of the ICC.
“The decisions of the international criminal court have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view,” the foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said on her Telegram channel. “Russia is not a party to the Rome statute of the international criminal court and bears no obligations under it.”
Can President Putin be arrested and tried by the ICC?
Currently, President Putin of Russia exerts undisputed authority within his homeland, making it unlikely that the Kremlin would hand him over to the ICC. As long as he stays in Russia, Putin faces no risk of arrest.
However, if Putin were to leave the country, the potential for detention would arise. Considering the substantial restrictions on his international mobility due to existing sanctions, it is unlikely that he would travel to a jurisdiction that aims to prosecute him.
Since the Russian military’s incursion into Ukraine in February 2022, Putin’s travels have been limited to just eight nations. Seven are considered part of Russia’s historical sphere of influence due to their Soviet Union heritage. The exception is Iran, where he met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in July of the preceding year. Given Iran’s support for Russia’s military efforts through equipment supply, a return visit to Tehran would probably not endanger Putin.
There is an unlikely scenario that President Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova will face a trial despite international arrest warrants and charges against them. Not only does Russia not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC, established in 2002 by the Rome Statute, this statute asserts that each nation should exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those accountable for international crimes.
The ICC only intervenes if a state can not conduct investigations and prosecutions. While 123 nations have accepted this statute, Russia and others are exceptions. Some countries, including Ukraine, have signed but not ratified the treaty.
The international community interprets the arrest warrant as a signal against the violations of international law in Ukraine. The ICC’s decision to publicize these warrants arises from the ongoing nature of these crimes, intending to deter further offences. Russia’s response has primarily been to dismiss these warrants as insignificant. The Kremlin denies any wrongdoing by its forces in Ukraine, and Putin’s spokesperson labelled the ICC’s decision as “outrageous and unacceptable.”
Given Russia’s defiance, it appears unlikely that the ICC’s actions will significantly influence the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Consequently, Putin’s military endeavours are likely to persist unabated.