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The Back-to-School Horror for Ukraine’s Children

6 minute read
Beth Van Schaack is the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice at the State Department.

For children in the U.S., the back-to-school season evokes a mix of emotions: nostalgia for another summer ended, excitement about seeing friends again and learning new things, and the butterflies that accompany any major life change. It is a time for many kids to pick out a new lunchbox and recommit to learning as they embark on their journey to adulthood.

Tragically, for Ukraine’s children, this back-to-school season is about trying to survive Russia’s war of aggression. The U.N. Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict has documented hundreds of cases of abuse by Russia’s armed forces, including the killing and maiming of children resulting from attacks with heavy artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, and air strikes. In addition, the U.N. report noted 480 attacks on schools and hospitals attributed to Russia’s armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Ukraine’s children have witnessed, and experienced, events that will haunt them forever: seeing loved ones killed, forcibly displaced, or abused as well as their homes and communities destroyed.

How do we know the extent of these abuses? The Conflict Observatory—a program supported by the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations in partnership with Esri, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, Planetscape Ai, and Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab—has provided independent documentation of the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine’s civilian population, and especially on children.

Read More: The Growing Pains of Kyiv's Youth Captured in Photos

One particularly depraved element of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine stands out: the forcible transfer and deportation of Ukraine’s children. In February 2023, the Conflict Observatory provided some of the most comprehensive empirical data that Russia is systematically and forcibly relocating Ukraine’s children. Russia has transferred children to camps in occupied areas of Ukraine or deported them to camps in Russia. It is placing others up for so-called “adoption” or in “foster care” with Russian families. The patterns of these transfers and deportations are chilling: in some cases, families were offered free summer camp experiences only to have contact with their children severed. In other cases, care facilities were emptied of children, with no records as to their whereabouts. 

As Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., stated before the Security Council, “Children are literally being ripped from their homes.” Once in Russia’s custody, some Ukrainian children are subjected to pro-Russia re-education programs, indoctrination, and military training. Some are told their parents do not want them, and some are punished if they don’t conform and fully renounce their Ukrainian identities. Russian citizenship has been foisted upon many of them as part of a widespread system of forced “passportization.”

Russia has responded to condemnations of its unconscionable actions with a barrage of denial, disinformation, and propaganda. Russian officials have claimed that this system is actually a grand humanitarian gesture in place to protect the most vulnerable children from the ravages of war. But the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine concluded that the transfers were not justified by safety or medical reasons and did not satisfy the requirements set forth by the laws of war.

At the Munich Security Conference last February, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced the Biden Administration’s conclusion that members of Russia’s forces and other officials committed crimes against humanity in connection with the deportation of Ukrainian civilians, including children who have been forcibly separated from their families. As President Joe Biden noted, Russia is trying to steal Ukraine’s future by stealing its children.

The people of Ukraine have rightfully demanded accountability. Prosecutors, advocates, and human rights lawyers have launched a concerted campaign aimed at securing justice in domestic and international courts, even as Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war continues unabated.

Read More: How One Group Rescues Ukraine's Children from Russia

The U.S., E.U., and U.K. have joined Ukraine in these efforts through the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group. The ACA is designed to support Ukraine’s prosecutors, operating in their own national judicial system, to identify and charge those responsible for the crimes committed in Ukraine. This innovative multilateral initiative is deploying teams of experts—many of them veterans from the world’s war crimes courts—to assist. The ACA is helping to triage the 100,000 plus potential war crimes that Ukraine has recorded to date; build case files against alleged culprits; track the location of suspects; and ensure due process, even for those charged with the most horrific crimes.

More broadly, an unprecedented 43 states referred Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC so far has issued arrest warrants for President Vladimir Putin and his Commissioner for Children's Rights (a misnomer if there ever was one), Maria Lvova-Belova. They stand accused of the forced deportation or transfer of children—a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is devoted to the protection of civilians. Additional arrest warrants are anticipated. In response, Dmitry Medvedev, a former President and Deputy Chair of the Security Council of Russia, suggested that the arrest warrants should be used as toilet paper. The U.S. has expressed support for the ICC’s investigation and is assisting it.

At home, Congress amended the War Crimes Act to allow for the prosecution of war crimes if the perpetrator is found in the U.S., regardless of their nationality or where the crimes took place. Attorney General Merrick Garland has also formed an ace War Crimes Accountability Team within the Department of Justice to pursue potential cases in U.S. courts. In the meantime, the U.S. has sanctioned individuals and entities connected to the transfer or deportation of Ukraine’s children. Several European states have formed a Joint Investigative Team to coordinate with each other and the ICC. Finally, a new International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression has been set up in The Hague, the justice capital of the world, to prepare for prosecutions for the crime of aggression. A seasoned prosecutor from the U.S. Department of Justice will be assisting in this effort.

Given the scale of criminality by members of Russia’s forces and Russian officials, achieving justice will be a generational effort. It will require perseverance from prosecutorial authorities the world over to collect evidence, prepare case files, and move quickly when perpetrators come within their jurisdictional reach. Those responsible should know that impunity is elusive, the arm of international justice is long, and war crimes prosecutors are tenacious. Many will not rest until those responsible for the terrible crimes committed against Ukraine’s people—including crimes against those most vulnerable—are held to account.

Ukraine’s children deserve nothing less.

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