on Friday 17 March, 2023

Putin’s alleged war crimes: who are the Ukrainian children being taken by Russia?

What we know about the children behind the indictment of Vladimir Putin and his children’s commissioner for abduction

Vladimir Putin with the children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Kremlin pool/EPA
by : The Guardian

The international criminal court in The Hague has indicted the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and children’s commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the mass abduction of Ukrainian children.

This means there is now an international arrest warrant out for Putin, a reflection of the speed with which the international legal community has pursued allegations of war crimes during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

These are the first cases opened by the ICC since its prosecutors launched an investigation into war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Ukraine last February.

What do we know about the Ukrainian children taken by Russia?

The court’s pre-trial judges said there were “reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population, and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children”. The judges said they had chosen to unseal the names of the suspects in an effort to prevent further crimes.

Reports first emerged last spring that Ukrainian children in occupied territory were being taken to Russia, and even being adopted by Russian families. Russia has presented its actions as a humanitarian mission to save Ukrainian children from the war. But Ukraine has accused Russia of genocide and described its actions as a war crime.

Who are the children involved?

The alleged abductees include children taken from Ukrainian state institutions in the occupied areas, children whose parents had sent them to Russian-run “summer camps” from which they never returned, children whose parents were arrested by the Russian occupying authorities, and children who were orphaned by the fighting.

Where are the children from?

The vast majority of Ukrainian children taken by Russia are from occupied areas of southern and eastern Ukraine: Kherson region, Kharkiv region, Zaporizhzhia region, Donetsk and Luhansk region, as well as a small area of Mykolaiv region.

How many children have been taken?

Russia has admitted to holding at least 1,400 Ukrainian children it describes as orphans, though it said at least 2,000 had travelled to Russia unaccompanied. In addition, several hundred children from the occupied territories remain in Russia after they attended “re-education” camps with the consent of their parents but were then not returned.

What has happened to the orphans?

Since the invasion, at least 400 Ukrainian orphans have been adopted by Russian families, according to the Ukrainian Regional Center for Human Rights, which has calculated its figure from statements by the Russian state. Russia has said 1,000 more are waiting to be adopted.

Lvova-Belova, the Russian children’s commissioner, has herself described “adopting” a 15-year-old child from Mariupol, the south-eastern Ukrainian city that was devastated and occupied by Russian forces.

But many of these Ukrainian children have living relatives, who are often desperately searching for them. Around 90% of Ukrainian children who were living in state care at the time of the invasion were “social orphans”, meaning they had relatives but those family members unable to take care of them.

Russian state announcements on the orphans do not name the children or give any details about where they are from or where they are living in Russia, making it difficult for the Ukrainian and international authorities to identify them and track their movements.

In some cases, relatives have identified children through videos posted by Russian state media and have campaigned for their return. Cases have also been documented where children ended up in Russian state care after fleeing the fighting in Ukraine on evacuation buses to Russia, as well as children who were separated from their parents at Russian filtration camps.

What are the summer ‘re-education’ camps?

At least 6,000 Ukrainian children in the occupied areas attended Russian state-funded summer camps, and several hundred of them have not been returned to their families.

The camps, which a Yale University study in February described as “re-education camps”, were advertised by the occupying authorities as a way for children to have a break from the war.

Since the start of the conflict a year ago, children as young as four months who were living in the occupied areas have been taken to 43 camps across Russia, including in Moscow-annexed Crimea and Siberia, for “pro-Russia patriotic and military-related education”, according to a report by the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab.

Some parents have managed to retrieve their children by making the long journey from Ukraine through Poland, and the Baltics, down to southern Russia. Others have given powers of attorney to secret networks of anti-Putin volunteers to extract their children from Russia. But videos from November, published by the regional Russian occupying authorities, showed hundreds of children still living at the camps.

What does international law say?

The United Nation’s prevention of genocide convention prohibits “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”, and the UN convention on children’s rights bans the “illicit transfer and non-return of children abroad”.

It is unclear under which section of international law the ICC plans to launch the case.

What does Russia say?

Russia’s domestic narrative is that it is saving Ukrainian children from the war. Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, also said Russia does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Ukraine, which is also not a party to the ICC, has asked the court to exercise jurisdiction over its territory twice.