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Russia’s alleged deportation of Ukrainian children has led to a standoff at the UN – what international law says and why it matters


The New Zealand Government sanction of the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova is one further expressing concern about alleged war crimes in Ukraine. But it’s just one small step in what will likely be a very long road to justice.

In March, the reported deletion of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territory to Russia itself prompted the International Criminal Court to issue a ruling arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lvova-Belova.

The arrest warrants claim that the transfer of children to the Russian Federation is illegal: such actions are war crimes according to the Statute of Rome of the International Criminal Court. Lvova-Belova and Putin have rejected the allegations, with Putin claiming the issue would be increased at the United Nations Security Council in early April.

Russia – controversial – now holds the board presidency for the month, but met with immediate resistance. Because of Lvova-Belova’s involvement, Britain has done just that blocked a planned UN webcast of an informal council meeting to discuss the eviction issue.

Meanwhile, the war continues to have a major impact on children. Hundreds have been murdered in random attacks, schools have done that been disruptedhave been about two million made refugees or are live in extreme poverty. The deportation of children adds misery upon misery.

Maria Lvova-Belova at a press conference on April 4 to address allegations that Russia is deporting Ukrainian children.
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Families during war

The issue of the unlawful deportation or transfer of children goes to the heart of international child protection law, which is almost a century old. The 1924 Declaration on the rights of the child originated in the care of the minor victims of the First World War.

After World War II, the impact of war on humanity was generally recognized in the UN Charterwhich aimed to “rescue succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “reaffirm confidence in fundamental human rights”.

Read more: International Criminal Court has called Russia’s deportation of Ukrainian children a war crime: On Russia’s long history of deportation as a weapon

These twin ideals were further elaborated in a number of international legal instruments. The protection of the family, as the natural and fundamental social unit, and of children and youth, is central to this. Such rights and obligations apply both in peacetime and during war.

The importance of these values ​​accumulated over decades to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was agreed in 1989. The deportation of children violates several basic children’s rights, including their right to:

  • know and are cared for by their parents

  • keep their identity, including their name, nationality and family relationships

  • be free from unlawful interference in their family.

There are strict rules regarding the separation of children from their parents. Adoption is allowed only in certain circumstances, with intercountry adoption being the last resort.

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Russia’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, gives a press conference as Russia assumes the presidency of the Security Council.
Getty Images

Special protection for children

As the arrest warrants show, the deportation of children is a serious violation of international humanitarian law (the rules countries must abide by during war). In the middle are the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977. The specific purpose of these treaties is to protect those who do not take part in hostilities, known as “Protected Persons”.

According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, children have the right to special protection, with rules aimed at protecting their relationship with their parents and families. States must ensure well-being of children who have been orphaned or separated from their families, and have to try reunite families separated through conflict.

Read more: Are Russian transfers of Ukrainian children to re-education and adoption facilities a form of genocide?

The evacuation of children is allowed during hostilities, although the rules on this were 1977 tightened.

But it’s the rules around occupied territories which are essential for the arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova. occupying powers forbidden to deport protected personsincluding children, from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power (or to any other country).

Occupying powers must too facilitate identification of children and the registration of their parents, and they must not change the personal status of children. Essentially, she should not break the relationship between children and their families.

Read more: Family separations in Ukraine highlight the importance of children’s rights

No impunity

Deportation to the territory of an occupying power increases the risk of the identity and nationality of such children being erased, particularly if the deported children are adopted.

But the implications don’t stop with the children themselves, as each group’s survival depends on its children. This means that the forced transfer of children from one group to another may also violate the 1948 Genocide Treaty if done with intent to “destroy, in whole or in part, any national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.

The Rome Statute also includes the forced transfer of children within the crime of genocide, which is a crime against humanity. But the arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova do not include these specific crimes.

Read more: Prosecuting Putin for kidnapping Ukrainian children requires a high burden of proof – and does not guarantee the children can get back home

It is unfortunately ironic, in light of the arrest warrants and Russia’s presidency of the Security Council this month, that not long ago the Council mention “the protection of children must be part of a comprehensive strategy to resolve conflicts and maintain peace”.

Russia’s actions must also be examined in light of legal requirements under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Genocide Convention. There is a long legal road ahead, but the principle is clear: impunity for crimes against children in wartime is not an option.

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