Of all the war crimes being committed by Russia in its brutal war on Ukraine, the mass deportation of children so they can be re-educated and raised as Russians stands out as one of the clearest crimes against humanity. It’s time for the United Nations General Assembly to finally take meaningful action when the international body gathers in New York City this month.
Ukraine estimates that approximately 3 million Ukrainians have been illegally deported to Russian-controlled territories. Ukrainian authorities have verified at least 20,000 children among them. But the real number is much higher: Russia announced that it had moved 700,000 children since invading Ukraine in 2014, although the crime was not highly publicized until the full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the presidential commissioner for children’s rights, for the deportation of Ukrainian children in March, and the U.N. has recognized the act as a war crime, as well as added Russia to the U.N.’s “shame list.” On Aug. 19, the Government of Ukraine and the U.N. Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting concluded a Joint Prevention Plan to end and prevent grave violations against children in Ukraine.
Still, to date, major international bodies have managed to return zero Ukrainian children. Those who have been saved were aided largely by Ukrainian NGOs and informal networks.
The Genocide Convention explicitly names the forcible transfer of children as a marker of genocide. The Geneva Convention recognizes it as a war crime. The abduction of children is one of the U.N.’s six grave violations affecting children the most in times of war. Organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the U.N. are responsible for ensuring these conventions are observed and have a direct mandate to take action. However, their statutes do not specify how to enforce the conventions in a state that refuses to cooperate on the issue, such as Russia.
To prevent and resolve the abduction of children, the U.N. or the ICRC need access to filtration camps, hospitals, orphanages and re-educational institutions where children are being kidnapped and subsequently hosted. Russia solely controls these facilities and refuses to let the independent representatives in. The U.N. continues honoring the agreements with Russia when instead it should pressure Russia to cooperate: revise the budget spent in Russia, start pulling its agencies out of the country, introduce a resolution condemning the deportation of Ukrainians, support Ukrainian organizations who are successfully returning children, but most importantly, prevent Russia from continuing its influence on the Security Council.
The ICRC has a Central Tracing Agency to reunite families separated by war, which requires parents to fill in an application and ask to find their missing child. The agency works with parent’s applications, and does not provide mechanisms for returning orphans, who comprise roughly 20 percent of all identified deported children. It also aims to return already identified children rather than require Russia to reveal the records and real numbers of all the deported children. Russia can return 20,000 kids and claim that it fulfilled its international obligations when in reality keeping hundreds of thousands more captive.
Ukraine has provided the ICRC with a list of deported children, but the organization has not returned any of them. Not only has the ICRC taken little action to free any Ukrainian children being held by Russia, its regional representatives in Russia and Belarus have been involved in the deportation of Ukrainian children and have so far faced no consequences from the headquarters.
So far, Ukraine has managed to return just under 400 children. All the returns have been executed by private initiatives, such as local organizations like the NGO Save Ukraine or by parents themselves. These rare and risky operations, requiring significant resources, skills and luck, have been executed at parents’ expense or supported by private donations.
Meanwhile, in its Ukraine and Refugee Response 2023 Appeal, UNICEF requested $1.1 billion to help affected Ukrainians with healthcare services, humanitarian aid and cash. The return of kidnapped children was conspicuously left off the list.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Red Cross and its regional organizations have fundraised roughly $2 billion to help affected Ukrainians, with only 5.5 percent of those funds being sent to the Ukrainian Red Cross. According to reports, no funds have been allocated to address deportation and forcible russification of Ukrainian children.
Of course, U.N. agencies and the ICRC are providing crucial life-saving humanitarian aid for Ukrainians. But so do many other organizations. The global community granted international organizations exclusive powers to stop war crimes and prevent genocides, including through the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Genocide Convention, and the U.N.’s own charter.
The governments of member states donate unprecedented funds to support this mission. But at the end of the day, the kidnapped children of Ukraine are being saved by local NGOs who operate exclusively on private donations, not by large organizations funded by the governments.
The U.N. General Assembly, taking place this month, presents an opportunity for the U.S., as the main public and private donor of the U.N. and its agencies, and other governments to prioritize this critical mission. Russia is holding the international system hostage thanks to its veto on the U.N. Security Council, and the U.N. risks irrelevance for its core missions if it fails to overcome this fatal flaw.
The U.N. has faced significant criticism throughout this war, despite some meaningful — though rare — successes, such as negotiating the Black Sea Grain Initiative that lasted only 120 days but secured the export of 32 million metric tons of grain and food products from Ukraine to the world.
Even so, the U.N. was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War to stop large-scale conflicts and future crimes against humanity. So far, it continues to fail on both accounts, and Ukraine’s kidnapped children are paying the price. The longer this issue stays on the international community’s back burner, the more children will be permanently lost inside the Russian system.
Katya Pavlevych is a child deportation policy adviser at Razom for Ukraine, and a volunteer at Where Are Our People?, an initiative aimed at uncovering Russia’s crime of deporting Ukrainians. Follow her on at @kpavelvych.
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